The visuals are delightfully Seussian, all curves and slants. I loved the mitten-shaped windows on one of the houses and the way that Whoville’s Christmas decorations make it look like a captivatingly intricate gingerbread village. In contrast, the Grinch’s mountain top lair is bare and cavernous, empty and solitary, far from the warmth of the Whovian homes.
While this is not especially inventive, there are some clever parallels as the Grinch and Cindy Lou each have to come up with a plan for Christmas Eve. They write out their schemes with the same two words alone on a huge surface: “Santa Claus.” And both must assemble helpers and equipment without anyone finding out.
The smaller details are the most fun, especially when the Grinch brings on an enormous, yak-looking reindeer named Fred to pull his fake Santa sleigh. Or when a relentlessly cheery Whovian (Kenan Thompson) with the fanciest Christmas decorations in town keeps insisting that he and the Grinch are best friends.
Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language
Some mild language
Peril and violence, death of human and animal characters, characters with disabilities and PTSD
Date Released to Theaters:
January 11, 2019
I laughed and I cried and I said, “Aww,” and that is not a bad way to begin the year.
Bryce Dallas Howard provides the voice of Bella, a pit bull pup living under an abandoned house in Denver with a bunch of homeless cats. She is loved and happy until animal control comes and takes her mother away. The mother cat adopts Bella, who is comforted and at home until the arrival of two animal welfare volunteers, who come by to leave cat food every day. Lucas (a warmly appealing Jonah Hauer-King) is a Veterans Administration employee studying for the MCATs and living with his mother, an Army vet struggling with depression. He is instantly taken with Bella and adopts her, even though his lease does not allow dogs.
Pit bulls are not allowed in Denver. It is up to the individual animal control officer to decide which dogs are covered by the ban, and one has it in for Bella. He picks her up once and Lucas pays the fine. But if he picks her up again, she will be killed. The developer who owns the property with the abandoned homes will do anything to get Lucas and the other animal lovers to stop interfering with his permits.
Lucas brings Bella to New Mexico to stay with friends so she will be safe while he moves to a new apartment outside of the Denver city limits. But Bella does not understand. She remembers that Lucas taught her how to go home, and so she runs away and begins a 400 mile adventure that will take more than two years.
Bella has encounters with humans and animals along the way, some kind, some predatory. She makes some friends and has the opportunity to find new loving homes but she wants to be with Lucas.
Having Bella as our narrator adds some charm to the movie because her understanding may be limited in some respects, but she never loses sight of the essentials. The individual encounters introduce us to a range of human characters, some worth a movie of their own, like the disabled vets who are able to experience joy and purpose through Bella (especially when they have to hide her from the doctor in charge of the VA hospital in one of the film’s best scenes). She saves one man’s life and becomes the last friend of a homeless man (Edward James Olmos). And she mothers “big kitten,” an orphan mountain lion who will someday return the favor. The footage here is heartwarming and genuinely astonishing, especially after they meet again when the majestic cat is fully grown.
This is a nice way to start the year, a story of love and loyalty, canine and human.
Parents should know that this film features humans and animals in peril, injured and killed, animal hit by a car, animal killed by hunters, character dies and the body is discovered by children, and characters who struggle with PTSD and depression.
Family discussion: What did Bella understand better than the humans did? Why did Bella make such a difference for the veterans?
If you like this, try: “The Incredible Journey” and “A Dog’s Purpose”
When I interviewed writer/director Barry Jenkins about “Moonlight,” we talked about the movie’s haunting score, composed by Nicholas Britell. “Many directors would use songs of the era to place the audience in the film’s three time periods,” I said. “Two things,” he replied. “First, we could not afford the rights to those songs. But more important, I believe these characters deserve a full orchestral score.”
I thought of those words as I watched Jenkins’ latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, and my #1 film of 2018. There were moments when it did not feel like I was watching the film. It was more like I was immersed in it, as though I could feel it pulsing through my veins. The entire theme of the movie could be, “These characters deserve a full orchestral score” along with the highest level of every other creative and aesthetic element available to a filmmaker, from Baldwin’s lyrical words to the luscious cinematography of “Moonlight’s” James Laxton, another gorgeous score by Britell, costumes that carry the narrative and illuminate the characters, and performances of infinite sensitivity and humanity.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” succeeds brilliantly at one of cinema’s most central functions: a love story with sizzling chemistry between two impossibly beautiful people. Stephen James (“Race”) and newcomer Kiki Layne are 2018’s most compelling romantic couple, pure pleasure to watch. Their relationship is in every way the heart of this story, the reason we feel so sharply the injustice and, in some ways harder to accept, the resignation that is the most undeniable signifier of generations of institutional racism. We see that most powerfully when Regina King, as the girl’s mother, looks in the mirror as she prepares like a matador entering the bullring for a meeting that could make all the difference for the couple. She cannot expect much, but she has to try. Throughout the movie, there is resignation and diminished hopes but there is also resilience. And “Beale Street” reminds us that undiminished and imperishable love abide: romantic love, the love of parents and siblings, even an unexpected encounter with a warmhearted landlord. There is the love Baldwin and Jenkins have for these characters. And, most of all, it reminds us that this is a story that deserves to be told with the best of what movies have to offer, including a full orchestral score.
James and Layne play Fonny and Tish, childhood sweethearts who are young and deeply in love. He is wrongfully arrested for rape by a bigoted cop with a grudge and is in jail when Tish tells him that she is going to have a baby. We see what happened before and what happens after in a jazzy, non-linear form, luscious images and exquisite performances. This film is a masterpiece, like its characters of a time nearly half a century ago, “ready,” and exactly right on time.
Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and situations, references to rape, unjust charges and abuse of the justice system, racism, and some peril and violence.
Family discussion: Why does Sharon take off her wig? Why do the mothers respond so differently to the news of the baby?
If you like this, try: “Moonlight” from the same writer/director and the books of author James Baldwin
Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action
Mild language in a song
Some peril, references to sad death of parent
Date Released to Theaters:
December 19, 2018
If I may borrow from the original “Mary Poppins movie” for a moment, the new sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a very jolly holiday with Mary indeed. Inspired, like the first, by the book series by P.L. Travers, this movie has Emily Blunt taking over from Oscar-winner Julie Andrews as the magical nanny who arrives once again just as the Banks family needs her most.
In the first film, she was nanny to Jane and Michael Banks. She took them on magical adventures that included a tea party on the ceiling and diving into a chalk picture for an animated musical number with dancing penguins. But the real magic she brought to the Banks family was a reminder of what was important. The fond but distracted parents learned that it was more important to fly a kite with the family than to keep the job that supports the family and its domestic employees or fight for the rights of women. (Well, the 60’s was a complicated time. But the message of family connections is still valid.)
This sequel very sweetly brings Mary Poppins back, once again arriving from the sky via a parrot-head handled umbrella, again to care for the Banks children, meaning the now-grown Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and voice of Paddington Ben Wishaw). Oh, and Michael’s three children, too, who have taken on too many adult responsibilities as the family still mourns the loss of their mother. Jane works for the rights of workers and does her best to help her brother and his children, who still live in the old house on Cherry Tree Lane.
They may lose the house, though, as Michael cannot pay the bank, yes, the same one his father worked at, what he owes. It’s now run by Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), who promises he will do everything he can to help Michael, but who shows up as a wolf in an animated adventure when Mary Poppins takes the children into the design on their late mother’s porcelain bowl, so perhaps he should not be trusted.
Jane and Michael remember Mary Poppins, but now believe that they only imagined the magical adventures. They have lost their ability to see magic in the world. Mary Poppins, with her brisk, no-explanations manner, has come back to show them how to find it. And that means a visit to another of her eccentric relatives (Meryl Streep, enjoying herself enormously), and journeys undersea via the bathtub and into the sky with balloons. And it means singing and dancing, too, with a wild music-hall-style number in an animated theater and a tender ballad about The Place Where Lost Things Go. Plus, Dick van Dyke is back. And he dances.
We take it for granted that this movie would have visual Disney magic. No one assembles a more gifted collection of production designers, costume designers, and visual effects designers than Disney, and no studio has a better, more organic sense of its own history and culture. So when Disney decided to revisit the 54-year-old classic based on P.L. Travers’s novels, after having already mined its own history with a movie about the making of that movie, it was fair to expect that it would look and feel as though we had never left. The magic touch is there, with gentle references to the earlier film, including the animated adventure with a retro, hand-drawn, cel-based look along the lines of Disney’s specialty, and an enchanting appearance from Dick Van Dyke, who played two characters in the original. Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins and “Hamilton’s’ Lin-Manuel Miranda as her lamp-lighting friend are practically perfect in every way. And, as “Saving Mr. Banks” reminded us, the real magic, is that at its heart it is not just about fantasy adventures but about healing the family. The songs, the special effects, the imagination are a lot of fun but what makes this movie top ten-worthy is the heart.
Parents should know that there are references to a sad death of a parent, worries about money, and some situations with mild peril. A song has some mildly spicy lyrics with references to nudity.
Family discussion: Which was your favorite adventure? Why didn’t Mary Poppins stay?
If you like this, try: the books by P.L. Travers and the classic original film