The Little Mermaid

Posted on May 23, 2023 at 2:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Scary monster, characters in peril, tense situations
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 26, 2023
Copyright Disney 2023

Disney’s live-action remake of the classic animated film that was a turning point marking the revitalization of Disney’s legendary animation division invites us to once again, be part of the world of mermaid Ariel (pop duet singer Halle Bailey) and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). As in the original film, the couple at the center are both a bit bland, and therefore perhaps the better question is whether we want to be part of the world of sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) and Ariel’s sidekicks, Scuttle (Awkwafina), Flounder (Jacob Trembley), and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), the classic songs with some additions from “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the visuals from cinematographer Dion Beebe, working with his “Chicago” collaborator, director Rob Marshall. The easy answer to that question is yes.

Again, it is a romanticized, happily-ever-after version of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the one so central to the Danish identity that it inspired the iconic statue in Copenhagen. In both of the Disney versions, Ariel is a rebellious teenager, the daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), who tells her than humans are evil and orders her to stay under water.

Eric, the adopted son of the widowed queen (a wonderfully regal Noma Dumezweni) is also ordered to stay away from the “other” world. Even before they meet, we see that he and Ariel have an adventurous spirit and core values of optimism, inclusion, and progressive views about the need to adapt to change in common.

Eric is my favorite Disney prince because, especially in the animated version, he is a little more off-beat than the usual stalwart, swashbuckling heroes. In his first scene, at sea, he shows us that he is not a snob and that he not only brings his dog on board, he risks his life to run through fire to save him. And then Ariel, who has been watching, saves both dog and prince from drowning. After a glimpse at the rescue, Ariel and Eric long to be together again, and that is when Ariel makes her fateful bargain with the sea witch.

Parts of this movie are truly enchanting, especially the underwater scenes. The opening moments on Prince Eric’s ship are thrillingly filmed and the “Under the Sea” number is a glorious Busby Berkeley underwater fantasia. A new number for Awkwafina from Lin-Manuel Miranda is a total banger. Some of the gentle updates to give Ariel more agency and the cast more diverse work well, and Colleen Atwood’s costumes are gorgeous. Other parts do not work as well. The ending is clumsy and drags on too long. The movie would be better with a 15 or 20 minutes shorter run time. But its best moments make us want to be part of Ariel’s world.

Parents should know that this film has some peril and scary moments including a fire on a sinking ship and a monstrous character.

Family discussion: Why do the Queen and King Triton fear going outside of their own communities? What will Eric and Ariel find? Which song is your favorite?

If you like this, try: the animated version, and the music of Chloe x Halle (note: some has mature language)

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Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

Posted on April 27, 2023 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, tension over religious differences
Date Released to Theaters: April 28, 2023

Copyright Lionsgate 2023
Judy Blume revolutionized what we now call YA literature with good stories and appealing characters. Most important, though, was she told the truth, simply and openly, about subjects adults too often make it hard for kids to ask about. It is not just that kids worry about the challenges of puberty, for example. The tougher part is the feeling that they’re the only ones, that everyone else seems to have got some key to it all that they’ve missed. One of Blume’s most popular books is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It was considered revolutionary at the time — and still the subject of book bans today — for its candid depiction of puberty, menstruation, the crushing middle school pressure to fit in, and perhaps even more shocking, questioning whether which religion, if any, she wanted to follow.

Blume resisted allowing her books to be adapted for film for a long time. But now, as a documentary about Blume herself is released, the 85-year-old author has authorized this film (she is also a producer), and it is the most loving, authentic adaptation imaginable, utterly true to the story, tone, and messages of the 1970 novel.

Wisely, they kept the 1970 setting. Today, the girls would get some information (and a lot of misinformation) from the internet and from books by Blume and others who followed her. But in 1970, all they had was rumors and someone’s dad’s Playboy.

The heroine of the title is 11 as the movie starts, and like pre-puberty characters in popular fiction over the years, from Pollyanna to Alice to Dorothy to Pippi Longstocking, she is happy and confident. But like almost all going-on-twelve year olds, she is starting to feel unsure of herself, looks to her peers instead of her parents to set the rules, and tries to blend in with those around her. This is amplified by having to get used to a new school where she does not know anyone. Her new neighbor, Nancy (Elle Graham) introduces herself and invites Margaret over to run under the sprinkler. Nancy is bossy, and Margaret finds that reassuring. When Nancy tells her she must not wear socks on the first day of school, she obeys, even though she gets blisters, as her mother warned her. When Nancy tells her she has to wear a bra, Margaret insists on getting one.

Margaret adores her grandmother, Sylvia, played with brio by Kathy Bates. Today we might call her “extra” or “no filters.” Back then, they probably called her impulsive, brassy, and outspoken. They both worry about missing each other when the family moves, and Margaret loves going into the city all by herself to visit Sylvia. They have a lot of fun together.

This story does not take the usual short-cuts in movies about children and pre-teens, with parents who have to be taught by their kids about what is going on and what they need. Margaret has good parents who love each other and love her. They are perceptive and supportive. Margaret’s father Herb (Benny Sadie) was raised Jewish. Her mother Barbara (Rachel McAdams) was raised by devout Christians and is estranged from her parents because they did not want her to marry a Jew). Herb and Barbara chose to raise Margaret without religion, and that has made her feel like an outsider. She tells her teacher she hates religious holidays because her family does not observe them. So she decides her year-long research project should be about religion. She goes to church with a friend and asks Syliva to take her to services at a synagogue. When Barbara’s parents come for a visit and try to impose their religion, Barbara tells them to leave. This is the most superficial and unsatisfying part of the book and the movie. Margaret learns nothing about religion beyond tribalism and it is hard to imagine she would get a passing grade on her paper.

The film is much better in dealing with the social pressures and the worries about the changes of puberty. It is a very rare film that is honest, in a very low-key way, about the stirrings of female desire. In a very sweet moment, Margaret’s parents exchange knowing glances, then ask her if she’d like to be the one to pay the boy mowing the lawn. She would. A memorable theme from the book and movie is the way a girl who matured early (Margaret at first thinks she is a teacher) is othered and insulted. While Margaret is impatient and worried about when she will develop breasts and menstruate, she learns that a girl who developed early is just as worried and lonely. Her growing sense of herself and the possibilities before her is what has made the book a foundational text for half a century and is lovingly portrayed in this adaptation.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with puberty and menstruation. There is also family strife over religion.

Family discussion: Why does Margaret want to do what Nancy tells her? How has middle school changed since this book was written? Why do some communities want to remove this book from the library?

If you like this, try: the book by Judy Blume

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Renfield

Posted on April 13, 2023 at 8:05 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, vampires, some very grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 13, 2023

Copyright 2023 Universal Pictures
If I told you to try to imagine a film from the creators of “Rick and Morty,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Robot Chicken” based on the IP (intellectual property) owned by the movie studio behind “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” and “The Wolfman,” you would probably guess that it would be a a very gory but amusingly slanted take on a classic, filled with goofy contemporary references. And you’d be right.

No one every paid much attention to Renfield in the many previous versions of the Dracula story, but as the title informs us, here he is the main character. Renfield is the unfortunate soul who is stuck as Dracula’s “familiar,” somewhere between a sidekick and a servant. Dracula has endowed (or cursed) him with eternal life at a lesser level. While Dracula (Nicolas Cage, having a blast) feasts on human blood, fresh, pure blood from unsuspecting tourists, nuns, and busloads of cheerleaders preferred, giving him some superpowers of strength and flight, blood that can cure injuries, and the ability to transform into bats, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) feasts on insects, giving him extremely good fighting skills. They both have some vulnerabilities as well. Dracula has his well-known problems with sunlight (it makes him burst into flames) and can be confined within a circle of protection. He also cannot enter unless invited in, giving rise to one of this film’s funniest sight gags.

What would happen if Renfield, utterly in thrall to his master, joined a support group for people in co-dependent relationships? That is where this movie starts, with the contrast between Renfield’s gothic persona (the faux archival footage putting Cage and Hoult into the settings of Universal’s classic Bela Lugosi film are a lot of fun) and the pastel colors, folding chairs, and perky affirmations. The leader of the group is the empathetic Mark (Brandon Scott Jones of “The Good Place” and “Ghosts”). And when others in the group describe the people in their lives as monsters, Renfield can identify. Dracula and Renfield always have to be on the move, with a cycle of Dracula’s being attacked by hunters, reduced in power, and needing to recuperate. Their latest home is in a dank (of course) abandoned building in New Orleans.

It occurs to him that he can change his life by helping others, starting with Mitch (Dave Davis), the toxic boyfriend of support group member Caitlin (Bess Rous). When Renfield goes to confront Mitch, though, he ends up in the middle of a shoot-out with the Wolf gang, the city’s most powerful crime family, led by ruthless Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her hot-headed son Teddy (Ben Schwartz).

Rebecca (Awkwafina) is the honest cop who has been trying to bring down the Wolfs, but the rest of the police force is on the Wolf payroll. Rebecca’s sister is part of an FBI task force investigating the Wolfs, but they have not made much progress. This is personal for them; their father, also in the police force, was killed by the Wolfs. When she is attacked by the Wolfs, Renfield saves her life. She sees him as a hero and he begins to see himself that way. He wants to keep that feeling. And he likes Rebecca.

Dracula has other plans. He wants total world domination. “There is no more good and evil; only followers and food.” Mark tells Renfield the person co-dependent with a narcissist is the one with the real power in their relationship.

While the trailer suggests that this is a comedy with vampires it is more of a bloodbath with some funny moments. Cage has the role he was born for and he, I have to say it, forgive me, sinks his teeth into it all the way and then some. Hoult deftly conveys the slightly decayed English gentleman, suffused with longing and regret and hoping some inspirational posters will help. Awkwafina is, as always, delightful. It’s good to see Universal making use of its IP, I mean archive, in an innovative and affectionate way.

Parents should know that this movie is extremely gory with lots of carnage and many graphic and disturbing images and sounds. Characters use strong language. The includes drug dealing and drug use.

Family discussion: How do support groups help people who are in toxic relationships? What does Renfield’s apartment tell us about his feelings? How did Dracula get people agree to be his familiars?

If you like this, try: “What We Do in the Shadows,” the film and television series, and of course the many versions of the Dracula story starting with the Bela Lugosi 1931 version imitated in this film’s fake archival footage

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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
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2023

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
Date Released to DVD: April 11, 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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