Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Posted on December 21, 2022 at 12:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/violence, rude humor, language and some scary moments
Profanity: Mild schoolyard language and almost-language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and action, comic "deaths," some scary monsters, a character embodies death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 23, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal/Dreamworks
The swashbuckling fairy tale cat Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) likes to remind everyone of his heroic, adventurous spirit, his skill with a sword, and his gift for singing. When pressed, as he is in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” by a doctor, he will admit that he is not much at math. And this is relevant because, as we know, a cat has nine lives, and if Puss had been keeping score he would have realized that he has used up…eight of them. It does not require a lot of math skills to figure out that means he is on his last one and has to be careful.

And that is how, after an opening scene filled with swordplay, acrobatics, and valor, including the defeat of a superbly designed tree giant, Puss ends up living with a cat lady (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, warm-hearted with just a touch of dottiness). “I’m always on the lookout for a new lap cat!” she says. Puss sadly buries his feathered hat and boots and resigns himself to the indignities of blue booties, eating cat chow from a trough, and using a litter box.

But then he discovers there is one chance to reboot his lives. It involves a magical map to the location of a fallen star that can grant just one wish. He is not the only one who wants that wish, though. Goldilocks (a hilarious cockney-accented Florence Pugh) and her three bear crime family (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, and Samson Kayo) and Big (formerly Little) Jack Horner (John Mulaney in full sneer mode) want the wish. And so does Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), whose fearlessness and swords(wo)manship are every bit a match for PiB, with a history together that makes them both wary and attracted to one another.

And so, Puss is off on a journey and in a race with the other groups trying to beat him to the wish. And as we expect from the SCU (Shrek Cinematic Universe), there will be humor ranging from sly references for the grown-ups to slapstick for the young and the young at heart. And there will be action, adventure, some heartwarming lessons about friendship and a little bit of romance. It is always fun to see or rather hear “Desperado” co-stars Hayek and Banderas together again.

The character design and movement is very well done, especially the tree giant, the wolf/bounty hunter who represents Death, and Goldilocks. And the animation style is wonderfully dynamic and expressive. I especially enjoyed the mix of animation styles. We are all used to the hyper-realism of CGI, with every hair in a cat’s fur rendered individually. So it was especially nice to see the contrast between that realism and a more impressionistic depiction of fur on the coats of the three bears or the bark on the tree giant. The combination works surprisingly well and a slight strobe effect on some of the action scenes gives them a joyfully dynamic comic-book pop.

This new chapter keeps the best of the series’ humor and heart and adds new touches to keep the story and characters vibrant. If they can keep this up, Puss should have many more lives.

Parents should know that this film has some mild schoolyard language and some almost-language, some potty humor, and extended fantasy action with some peril and violence that almost reaches the PG-13 level, including flashbacks of Puss in Boots’ first eight “deaths.”

Family discussion: If you had nine lives, what chances would you take? What was different about what Golidlocks and Jack Horner wanted to wish for?

If you like this, try: The other Shrek and Puss in Boots movies and the fairy tales and nursery rhymes that inspired them.

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Living

Posted on December 13, 2022 at 10:39 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for smoking and some suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 7, 2023

Copyright 2022 Sony
An 1886 novella by Leo Tolstoy inspired Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to create one of the most acclaimed films of all time, “Ikiru,” in 1952. And now those two core works have inspired an extraordinarily wise and touching British film starring Bill Nighy called “Living,” with a screenplay by Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro. What has drawn all of these artist together is that most profound of existential questions, literally the meaning of life. And like the two earlier works, “Living” is superb in every detail.

The story is set in post-WWII London. Mr. Williams (Nighy), a supervisor in a government office, overseeing a group of mostly white men (one woman, one Indian-British) who sit around tables piled high with file folders and documents. The production design by Helen Scott and cinematography by Jamie Ramsay are impeccable. We follower newcomer Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) as he begins to learn the way the office works. His colleagues board the commuter train together. “This time of morning, not too much fun and laughter. Rather like church,” he is cautioned by one of his new co-workers after he ventures some mild self-deprecating humor. All conversation is highly professional, quiet, understated, and exquisitely polite.

A group of local women trying to get a permit to turn a small area that was bombed in the Blitz turned into a playground keep coming to Mr. Williams’ department. And every other department in the building, because each one tells them it is someone else’s responsibility. For Mr. Williams, his job is about moving paper, not helping people.

After he gets the bad news from his doctor, Mr. Williams practices telling the son and daughter-in-law who live with him that he only has a few months to live. His emotional vocabulary is so shrunken, so limited, the only word he can think of to describe the situation is, “bore.”

He cannot bring himself to tell them, even or especially after he hears them talking about how they want to move out and live on their own. And then, Mr. Williams, the most methodical and reliable of men, does not go to his office. He finds his way to the seaside and strikes up a conversation in a bar with a bon vivant writer (Tom Burke), one of only two people he will tell about his diagnosis. The writer suggests spending his last months having fun, and they spend a raucous evening together, but that is not what Mr. Williams needs.

The second person he tells is a former co-worker, who spends some time with him, and it is her example that helps lead him to an understanding of what he needs to make the final time meaningful.

Nighy, always superb, has never been better. He is able to show us emotions that Mr. Williams does not even understand he is experiencing. Every moment of this film is exquisite, a poetic elegy to reveal not only Mr. Williams’ purpose but our own.

Parents should know that this movie deals with a terminal illness. There is some mild language, drinking, and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What do you and the people around you to do find meaning? Will the people in Mr. Williams’ office keep their pledge? Why didn’t he tell his son what was going on?

If you like this, try: “The Browning Version” (1951 version) and “Last Holiday” (1950 version), two British films from the era depicted in this film with related themes, and “Ikuru” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” as well.

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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
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

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Rosaline

Posted on October 12, 2022 at 9:52 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and brief strong language
Profanity: Strong language (s-words, one f-word)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some swordplay and fight scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 14, 2022

Copyright 2022 20th Century
Most people do not remember that before he met Juliet at the masked ball and instantly fell in love with her as they communicated not just by iambic pentameter but by sonnet, Romeo was in love with Juliet’s cousin Rosaline. She was also a Capulet and a part of the family of his family’s sworn enemies. It’s easy to forget her because Romeo did. Though the whole reason he snuck into the party was to see the girl he described as “the all-seeing sun ne’er saw her match since first the world begun,” as soon as he sees Juliet, it is as Benvilio correctly predicted: “Compare her face with some that I shall show, and I will make thee think thy swan a crow.” Next thing we know he’s telling Friar Lawrence, “I have forgot that name, and that name’s woe.”

Ever wonder how the story might look from Rosaline’s perspective? Author Rebecca Serle did, with her novel, When He Was Mine, now the basis for a witty romantic comedy starring the wildly talented Kaitlyn Dever (who also executive-produced) as the woman scorned. It is sly, clever fun on its own, but the better you know Shakespeare’s play, the more you will enjoy it.

it begins on a balcony. Rosaline’s balcony. Romeo is telling her about his feelings, in words that will seem familiar. And, as will also seem familiar, their secret tryst is interrupted by a call for her from inside. Like Juliet, she has a nurse/confidant (a terrifically dry Minnie Driver), and a father who is eager to marry her off (Bradley Whitford). Rosaline believes that she and Romeo are meant to be together (though she is not quite ready to say, “I love you”).

And then, while on a boat with one of the suitors her father has foisted on her, she misses that Capulet masked ball, and, well, we know that part of the story. That suitor is Dario, played with full Shakespearian dash, wit, and gallantry by Sean Teale, and in true Shakespearian fashion, when not writing about instant true love, they begin as hostile combatants. He even calls her a shrew. This is a reference, of course, to another Shakespeare play, but no one gets tamed in this one.

But, in this version, Rosaline, the woman scorned, does go all-out “My Best Friend’s Wedding” on her cousin, and tries every way she can think of to get her boyfriend back. She even enlists Dario’s help. Like the recent “Catherine Called Birdy,” much of the humor comes from a very modern sensibility, with contemporary language, pointing up some of the absurdity of the canon.

Juliet is played by sweet-faced Isabela Merced. At first, she is intrigued by what Rosaline has to show her about the bigger world. When she realizes that Rosaline has not been honest with her, she pursues the relationship with Romeo and comes up with a plan to pretend to be dead. Rosaline says what audiences have been waiting to say for centuries. It is a dumb plan. And those audiences will appreciate what Rosaline and Dario work out as a better ending, especially with a mid-credit. sequence harking back to Dario’s description of what he thinks love is. Romeo may be great at poetic speeches on balconies, but you need more than that on life’s journey.

For the record, this movie does not “ruin” or even disrespect “Romeo and Juliet.” The play and its many versions and variations are still with us, from the Franco Zefferelli and Baz Luhrmann films to the Gounod opera and “West Side Story.” They are all still there, intact, and easy to access. What this does is remind us that even minor characters in our stories can have value and agency, that exploring other perspectives can increase our understanding and empathy. And that it can be a lot of fun.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and swordplay violence.

Family discussion: What story would you like to re-tell from a minor character’s perspective? What made Rosaline and Dario change their minds about each other? What do you think of Dario’s description of love?

If you like this, try: “Ophelia,” a smart and serious version of “Hamlet” from the perspective of the young woman, “Catherine Called Birdy,” another sharp modern take on a medieval story about a young woman, and “A Knight’s Tale”

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The Good House

Posted on September 29, 2022 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: NA
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcoholism, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to two suicides (off-screen), some scuffles, lost child
Diversity Issues: Neurodivergent child
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2022
Date Released to DVD: November 21, 2022

Copyright 2022 Lionsgate
Hildy Good (Sigourney Weaver) tells us she was “born three drinks short of comfortable.” She tells us a lot in “The Good House,” based on the 2013 novel by Ann Leary. Hildy and her ancestors going back to one Sarah Good, hung for being a witch back in the late 1600s, have always lived in a Massachusetts town on the shore of the Atlantic ocean. By nature, culture, and profession she is utterly attuned to the emotions and the stories around her. As a realtor, she has to be able to assess immediately the needs and dynamics of the prospective buyers and sellers. Divorce may be a personal catastrophe for the people splitting up, but for her it is a business opportunity. Hildy has to balance the necessity of being pleasant and supportive to everyone with the necessity of boundaries that keep her from getting too emotionally involved. But they also keep her from being as perceptive about herself as she is about others. Hildy narrates a lot and she is always charming, often a little wry, but as we go on we see what she is leaving out of the story.

The good news about a small town is that everyone knows everything about everyone. That can be a source of comfort and help people feel grounded. The bad thing about a small town is that everyone knows everything about everyone. That can be a source of claustrophobia and make people feel trapped. The local psychiatrist, for example, is Peter (Rob Delaney). Hildy will always see him in part as the little boy she used to babysit for. Even if she does not, he will always think she does.

There is an increasing gulf between the way Hildy wants to be seen in the community, the way she is seen, and the way she is. We learn that her daughters and ex-husband organized an intervention because of her drinking, and she has been to rehab. And she is still drinking. A lot. She believes it is important for her to appear successful, so she drives a car she cannot afford. She is struggling and feeling the pressure from a former assistant who has become a competitor.

The trailer may suggest that the focus of the movie is the romance as Hildy connects with Frankie (Kevin Kline), a contractor she loved when they were teenagers. But it is really the story of Hildy coming to terms with the loss and fear she has pushed away and refused to acknowledge since she was a child. Often it was alcohol that she used to make reality less painful. This is a gorgeous role for the endlessly talented Weaver, who gives a layered, deeply lived-in performance, one of the best of the year. She shows us Hildy’s cool, pulled together, ABC (Always Be Closing), performative self, the one she shows to clients, potential clients (that means everyone), even her two daughters. Her wry humor at first looks like some self-awareness, but as it goes on, we see it is just another way to avoid seeing the truth. The same with the details she confides in us. At first they seem disarming and candid. But we learn more about what she is leaving out. And her chemistry with her “Dave” and “The Ice Storm” co-star Kline is genuine and touching.

There’s an engaging shagginess to the story that reveals its origins as a novel. Directors and co-screenwriters (with Thomas Bezucha) Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky leave in some of the messy details of the novel that most writers would smooth over in a movie adaptation, where there is a limited time so that every aspect has to push the story forward. This gives the film a sense of atmosphere and community that we can believe goes beyond the edges of the frame.

Parents should know that this film deals with alcoholism, depression, and suicide. A child is in peril. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Hildy tell Rebecca she could not get involved? Do you believe Hildy had special powers of perception?

If you like this, try: “Dave” and “Our Souls at Night” and, by these same screenwriters, the excellent autobiographical “Infinitely Polar Bear”

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