image from the movie IF

IF

Posted on May 15, 2024 at 2:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rate PG for thematic elements and mild language
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death and illness of parents, injured child
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2024

Classic movie fans will immediately recognize a brief clip watched by one of the characters in “IF.” It is James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey,” a gentle fantasy about a man who is the only one who can see a tall invisible rabbit-looking creature called a pooka, named Harvey. Later in that film, when a doctor tries to assess his mental capacity, Dowd says, “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” Another touchstone for the film is that moment, more heartbreaking for parents than children, when Bing Bong dissolves in Pixar’s “Inside Out.” Writer/director/star John Krasinski says he made “IF” because he realized his daughters were on the cusp of that end of childhood when imagination is real to them. The movie’s poignance will be felt most acutely by parents, aware of their own fleeting moments of magic as children and, while looking forward to the milestones of their own children, missing the magic and even the exhaustion of the early years.

The title “IF” mostly stands for “Invisible Friend,” but also a little bit stands for the word we use to conjure up infinite possibilities. The world Krasinski has conjured up here is beguiling, with a handmade, retro feel. The Paramount logo at the beginning looks like a child’s finger-painting and the movie itself is a smudgy valentine, all heart, whimsy, and charm. If the message is a bit messy and the logic not quite sound, for me that was more than made up for by the tenderness.

It takes place in present-day-ish, no cell phones, no internet searches, an apartment building and apartment decor that dates back to the 40s or 50s. The soundtrack includes some classic songs, played on, stay with me kids, a vinyl record on a Victor Victrola with a trumpet horn, like they made a hundred years ago. Cal wears suspenders and a hat that’s vintage, not hipster. The light is soft. And there is a beguiling enchanted amusement park on the beach.

Cailey Fleming is lovely as Bea, a 12-year-old girl staying with her grandmother (the always-wonderful Fiona Shaw, a long way from Harry Potter’s aunt) while her dad joke-aficionado father (Krasinski) is in the hospital. As we see early on, Bea’s adored mother died when she was young, so her father’s illness is hitting her very hard. When her grandmother tries to welcome her into the apartment she once shared with both parents by offering her the paints she used to enjoy, Bea stiffly says she is too told for them now.

She goes for a walk and sees what she thinks might be a girl her age. But she is not. Bea discovers that Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is an imaginary friend who looks like a girl-sized talking butterfly, who lives in an apartment in the same building where Bea is staying, with Cal (Ryan Reynolds) and Blue (Steve Carrell) a gigantic, fluffy purple imaginary friend with a sweet, goofy smile. Cal explains that there are a lot of imaginary friends who have been outgrown by the children who created them. Cal and Blossom are trying to find new children for the abandoned imaginary friends, so they don’t disappear. Bea is captivated by the idea and volunteers to help.

Krasinski assembled an all-star cast to provide voices for the amusingly varied group of imaginary friends, including George Clooney as an astronaut, Bradley Cooper as an ice cube, Emily Blunt as a unicorn, Awkwafina as a bubble, and the late Louis Gossett, Jr. as a bear named Lewis. Cal, Bea, and Lewis interview the IFs to try to match them up with children who share their interests and need their skills. But it turns out that may not be the answer they are looking for. The one they find will be as reassuring to kids as it is to parents.

Parents should know that, as in many stories with children at the center, this one begins with a sad loss of a parent. And her remaining parent is also ill. and in the hospital for surgery.

Family discussion: What stories do you like to tell? Which IF is your favorite and why? What IF will you imagine?

If you like this, try: “Inside Out” and “Tuck Everlasting”

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Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Posted on May 9, 2024 at 11:37 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence/action
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense peril and violence, beating, sling-shots, taser-like spears, explosion, flood, marauders, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2024
Copyright 20th Century 2024K

Know going in that this is the kind of movie where the humans are mute, cognitively impaired, and yet the main human character wears tailored pants and a woven shirt that look like they came from the mall. This should not be a surprise as it is also the kind of movie there the title is, at best, paradoxical, as a planet is bigger than a kingdom and in any even the kingdom in this story is only a small part of the planet. So shouldn’t it be “Kingdom ON the Planet of the Apes?” Of all the suspension of disbelief required for the film, the idea that complex machinery would operate as intended after hundreds of years — well, that idea procured intended laughs in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” and unintended laughs in “Battlefield Earth.”

Know, too, that, for anyone who is trying to keep track of the “how does ‘Tokyo Drift’ fit into the chronology”-type questions about the original series of films, the television show, and the Tim Burton-and-after movies, this one takes place a long time after the death of legendary character Cesar, who sacrificed himself, and, possibly, before the Charlton Heston original. Maybe.

Noa (Owen Teague) is a young, male ape who lives in a gentle clan with his parents and two best friends. We first see them preparing for a coming-of-age ritual. Each of them must find an eagle’s egg (but always leaving one in the nest), and bring it back safely. The clan is centered around their trained eagles, and Noa’s stern father is their leader. Noa struggles to get his father’s approval. We see that they have some signs of what we think of as human civilization, in addition to the rituals. They have built some simple structures as homes, they ride horses, they obey the rules of the clan, and they have adornments and some tools and simple weapons, like slingshots. Also, as mentioned above, that most human of attributes, daddy issues.

A marauding group of apes arrive, with more powerful weapons, including spears with taser-like points. They destroy the compound, kill Noa’s father, and capture everyone else, except for Noa, who manages to escape, vowing to find his clan and get revenge. He meets up with Raca (the deep, kind voice of Peter Macon), a follower of the lessons of Cesar. And they meet up with a human woman they call Nova (Freya Allan) — cue the jokes about how humans are slow-witted and smell bad.

They try to drop Nova off with a group of humans (note: none wearing pants and a shirt), but the same marauding apes arrive to capture the humans like cowboys capture mustangs or, in “The Time Machine,” the Morlocks capture the Eloi. It turns out Nova has some secrets.

She and Noa are themselves captured by the apes, they find themselves in the kingdom of Proximus (Kevin Durand), a tyrant who, like the male humans of our time, is obsessed with Ancient Rome. They live on what was once a human stronghold, and Proximus is determined to break into the vault, to get access to whatever it was the humans were so intent on protecting.

I suspect we may hear some people claim that this film is intended as a metaphor to illuminate some of the most divisive topics of our era — colonialism, immigration, xenophobia, the way we tell our history. That gives this film too much credit, but the way both Raca and Proximus claim to be the true heirs of Cesar’s authority, with very different interpretations of his message, should resonate with viewers.

We are mostly there for the special effects and action scenes, though, and those are vivid and effective. The settings are stunning and the motion capture and CGI are next-level, giving the ape characters real weight and their expressions, well, expressive. As one of the most enduring series in history moves, potentially, toward the time of the very first film, the questions remain: whether humans and apes can find a way to co-exist, whether technology can advance without causing great harm and existential threats, and whether humans or apes can ever find a way to overcome fear and greed to work together for the common good.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there are some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use brief strong language (a human teaches it to the apes, of course).

Family discussion: Why did the clans have such different cultures?

If you like this, try: the other movies in the series and the original films with Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Charlton Heston

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The Fall Guy

Posted on May 1, 2024 at 10:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action and violence, drug content and some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, jokes about getting tipsy, drug use, including hallucinations
Violence/ Scariness: Extended real and fictional peril and action, fights, guns and other weapons, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 3, 2024

“The Fall Guy” is a love letter to movie-making, to all of the work, all of the heart, all of the expertise from hundreds of people that goes into telling our stories. It is a love letter to the audience, filled with action, romance, comedy, impossibly gorgeous, magnificently talented ,and endlessly charismatic performers, and with joy. Most of all, it is a love letter to the unsung heroes who do the crazy daredevil stunts that make the world’s most beloved movie stars look athletic and courageous. It is pure popcorn pleasure and I cannot wait to see it again.

There’s just a tincture of the 80s television series that lends its name, its theme song, character name, and a brief cameo from its star, Lee Majors). This is the story of stunt man Ryan Gosling as Colt Seavers, who is the long-time substitute for one of the world’s biggest Hollywood action stars, Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) when the script calls for anything that might be dangerous. The job of the stunt performers is to do the crazy things that make audiences gasp and cheer: cars rolling over, falls from great heights, fighting with fists, feet, and weapons, dangling from helicopters, racing speedboats. Basically, they get paid a minuscule fraction of what the star is paid to get all of the bruises, burns. and broken bones, do to it over and over, to make sure their faces do not show and ruin the illusion, and to give a thumbs-up to show that they are fine after every take.

Colt has a crush on a cinematographer and would-be director, Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt). But when Tom insists on a re-do of a fall from the top of a skyscraper atrium because he thinks too much of Colt’s chin was showing, something goes wrong and Colt is badly injured. Over the next 18 months, as he slowly recovers, he works as a parking valet and his relationship with Jody ends in hurt and disappointment.

And then Colt gets a call from Tom’s long-time producer, Gail Meyer (“Ted Lasso’s” Hannah Waddingham). Tom is making a huge sci-fi film in Australia and Gail wants Colt to do the stunts. He says no. She says Jody asked for him. He says, “Get me an aisle seat.”

Once he gets to Sydney, Gail tells Colt that Tom has disappeared and she wants Colt to find him. He also finds out that Jody did not ask for him because (1) she is surprised to see him and not happy about it and (2) she fires him. Literally. Like, she has him do a stunt where he’s on fire and gets slammed into a rock — three times.

There is so much more I’m longing to tell you about what happens next but I want you to have the pleasure of discovering it all for yourselves. I will just say that Gosling and Blunt have chemistry for days and are clearly having a blast perfecting the balance between action, comedy, romance, and mystery, there are dozens of sly jokes about Hollywood and filmmaking, Winston Duke is a dream as the stunt coordinator (if you have not seen him in “Black Panther” and “Nine Days” and “Us,” three roles that could not be more different, watch them!), there’s a stunt dog who only understands French, and while you may expect the stunts to be amazing, they are amazing times amazing. Real-life stunt performer-turned director David Leitch likes to take Hollywood’s handsomest leading men (Brad Pitt in “Bullet Train,” Gosling here) and make them scruffy and in need of a comeback, always a choice choice. Be sure to stay through the credits for behind the scenes footage of the real stunt performers and an extra scene.

Parents should know that this is an action film with extended real and fictional (stunt) peril and violence, with guns and other weapons, fight scenes, characters injured and killed, drinking and jokes about being tipsy, drugs, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What’s your go-to karaoke song and why? Why is it hard to apologize? Would you like to see the movie Colt and Jody are making?

If you like this, try: “The Stunt Man” (some mature material) with Peter O’Toole as the director of a WWI movie who impulsively hires an escaped convict as a stunt performer, and stunt-filled films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Fast X” and another movie from this director, also with Taylor-Johnson, “Bullet Train”

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Challengers

Posted on April 25, 2024 at 5:07 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual content, language throughout, and graphic nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Character is injured
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 26, 2024

“Challengers” is about a love triangle set in the world of professional tennis. We follow the configurations of the various romantic and sexual encounters like we follow the ball being hurled over the net left to right, right to left. It is beautiful to watch, with cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, but more perfume commercial than story. The characters have almost no complexity, increased understanding, or consequences.

Zendaya, who also produced the film, plays Tashi, a young superstar turned coach after a knee injury. Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, Riff in Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor, young Prince Charles in “The Crown”) are best friends, doubles partners, and tennis boarding school roommates. All three are, even by movie star standards, impossibly gorgeous and erotically compelling. In their world, all that matters is using their physicality in the strongest, most competitive manner. This is the film that should be called “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.”

As in his earlier films, like “Call Me By Your Name” and “Bones and All,” director Luca Guadagnino makes “Challengers” intensely charged with sensual pleasures and, in their more extreme form, obsessions. Unlike “Bones and All,” these characters are not literal cannibals. Only spiritual, metaphorical cannibals.

“I love you,” Art tells Tashi. “I know,” she answers. And not in an endearing Han Solo way. Early on in the film (but late in the timeline), we see her marking up a proposed ad featuring her and Art as coach and tennis champion, wife and husband. The text says “Game Changer.” She adds an s, giving herself equal prominence. In a later scene, a flashback set when Art and Tashi are in college and she and Patrick are in a relationship, she gives him feedback about his tennis game during foreplay. The sex never happens, though, because he does not want her to coach him. “I’m a peer,” he insists before they part in a fury. What he cannot seem to understand is that intensely competitive tennis is all she is.

Challengers trailer

The story takes us back and forth in time, and you have to watch the characters’ hair to remind yourself whether they are teenagers, college students, or in their early 30s, and who is sleeping with who. Note the A to Z in the male characters’ names, and their nickname during their doubles years, Fire and Ice, amplifying their opposition and connection. The three characters are like charged ions, pulled toward each other, unable to touch or to break away.

Parents should know that this is a very explicit and erotically charged film, with non-sexual male nudity (steam room, locker room), very strong language, smoking, and drinking.

Family discussion: How would the story have been different if Tashi had not been injured? Do you think she will try to make her daughter into a tennis star?

If you like this, try: “Personal Best” and “Malcolm and Marie”

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Bad Faith: Christian Nationalism’s Unholy War on Democracy

Posted on April 24, 2024 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: News images of violence including January 6, 2021
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 26, 2024

This is a very scary movie, and the scariest part is that the people it is about will never see themselves in it. At less than 90 minutes, it can only touch the surface of some of the issues behind the undermining of democracy by a toxic stew of billionaires seeking less regulation and more tax cuts, white evangelicals who have been persuaded that a holy war will put a stop to whatever previously gave them a sense of cultural primacy, and power brokers who recognize that their views are in the minority and the only way they can get the authority they want is a combination of disinformation and voter suppression. But it does a very good job of documenting history that will surprise even the most sophisticated political observers.

For example, most people tend to think that abortion fueled the uprising of white evangelicals groups that had previously had very little interest in politics and did not tie voting to faith. But directors Stephen Ujlaki and Christopher Jacob Jones make it clear that abortion was not the precipitating factor. It was a few years before, the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) could deny tax-exempt status to schools with racially discriminatory policies. This struck at the heart of the evangelical groups led by people like Jerry Falwell, but they knew advocating for segregation was not a winning argument. They finally figured out that they could get the rank and file excited by using extremist language about reproductive health.

Later, attacks on various “woke” concepts like same-sex marriage, inclusion, and combatting climate change created opportunities for the wealthy to agitate the white evangelical base on their behalf.

This is a very traditional documentary, archival footage and experts. But the experts are exceptionally well chosen, starting with a blonde woman who begins by telling us that faith is the center of her life. We expect her to be one of the Christian nationalists the movie is about. Instead, she is a former official in the Trump-era Department of Homeland Security who, we see later, was aghast when President Trump refused to make the threat of domestic terrorism a priority. A minister whose faith leads him to support policies that help the poor and marginalized, another who was trained by a Christian nationalist group but left, and journalists and scholars with have deep knowledge in this area make some well-documented assessments. Longtime Republican consultant Steve Schmidt says what these people are working toward is Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale.” We learn about the “multi-facted operation of tremendous sophistication” used to spread mistrust and disinformation, funded by the ultra-wealthy and promoted by FOX and Sinclair Broadcasting, based on data mining of church rosters, not just of the names of members but of their most personal information and shared confidences.

But nothing is as chilling as the footage where we hear evangelical leaders and their political consultant counterparts say what they really think. They insist “America was founded as a Christian nation” (not true), that that concept of separation of church and state is not based in the Constitution but in a “stinkin’ letter” (Representative Lauren Boebert) (also not true), and that we need a “war” to impose a particular white Christian Protestant religion on everyone. And they answer a question many outside the white Christian evangelical world ask, why people of faith are so committed to Donald Trump, who promises to support them but whose life violates some of the values they say are essential; there are many in this group who do not want a man who follows Jesus. They want a chaos agent to undermine the most fundamental foundations of democracy, because democracy means majority rule and they know they cannot win that way.

Parents should know that this film includes discussions of bigotry, Christian nationalism, voter suppression, and abortion, with some footage of the insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Family discussion: What surprised you in this movie? Who did you find most trustworthy and why?

If you like this, try: “Slay the Dragon” (about gerrymandering), “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” “Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook,” “Answer the Call,” and other documentaries about attacks on democracy

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