A Dog’s Journey

Posted on May 16, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and sad deaths of humans and animals, automobile accident, stalker, family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 19, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019
In “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, the soul of a dog named Bailey (voice of “Frozen’s” Josh Gad) was reborn over and over as we saw him (and sometimes her) with different owners, from a boy named Ethan to a police officer, to a lonely single woman, and ultimately back to a middle-aged Ethan again, now played by Dennis Quaid. Through it all, Bailey wonders what his purpose is, and learns that, like the rest of us it is to love and be loved, and to be loyal to his “pack.”

Bailey’s story continues in “A Dog’s Journey,” also based on a Cameron book. This time the tender/sad/sweet series of rebirth stories are all in the same family, as Bailey’s purpose is to look after Ethan’s granddaughter, CJ.

At the end of the last movie, Bailey helped to reunite Ethan with the girl he loved in high school, Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). As this movie opens, both Ethan and Bailey are a bit creaky in their joints, but they are still devoted to one another. Hannah’s son was killed in an accident when his wife Gloria (“GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin) was pregnant. Now she and her toddler daughter live on Ethan’s idyllic farm, which is always bathed in golden light and looks like something out of a coffee commercial. Ethan and Hannah adore their granddaughter, and the little girl loves them and Bailey but Gloria is restless and insecure. She takes the girl and refuses any contact with Ethan and Hannah. As Bailey dies, Ethan whispers that he should find CJ and take care of her.

And so Bailey is born as Molly adopted by now 11-year-old CJ (“Ant-Man’s” Abby Ryder Fortson). She has to hide the dog from Gloria, who has become alcoholic and neglectful. Molly is a great comfort to CJ, her only source of stability other than her best friend Trent, who has adopted Molly’s brother.

As CJ grows up (now played by British actress/singer Kathryn Prescott), Bailey finds a way to keep coming back to her when she needs it most.

The gentle humor in the film comes from what Bailey does and does not understand. Does understand: “take care of CJ,” “go where the good smells are,” “when Ethan crouches and throws the deflated football, leap over his back and catch it.” Does not understand: “what does shhh mean?” “why is CJ spending time with someone who is not in our pack when I have just led her to her long-lost best friend Trent (Henry Lau)?” The sweet moments come from the connections, between humans and between humans and dogs. The cute moments come from — did I mention all the puppies? There are plenty of “awwww” moments to go around, with reconciliation, support, and reunion, and plenty of human and canine characters to care for. I’m glad Bailey keeps coming back.

Parents should know that this film includes sad deaths of humans and animals, potty humor, a car accident, serious illness, drinking and drunkenness, a neglectful parent and an abusive boyfriend.

Family discussion: What convinced C.J. that her grandfather was right about Bailey? Why was it hard for her to acknowledge her feelings about Trent? Is there an animal that has been special to you?

If you like this, try: “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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The Sun is Also a Star

Posted on May 15, 2019 at 6:15 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Accident with pedestrian injuries, family scuffle
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 19, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers Studios
A pair of teenagers who happen to meet on a day of great pressure for both of them are riding on a New York City subway train that gets stuck. The engineer comes on the speaker to tell them a story reminiscent of the Taoist parable about the farmer, the son, and the horse. Sometimes the very thing that you think is an insurmountable obstacle to what you are urgently trying to achieve turns out to lead you to something you could not have imagined, or even to save your life.

That is a theme in “The Sun is Also a Star,” along with the divide and sometimes conflict between poetry and science, the left brain and the right, what we feel and what we can prove, and the needs and dreams of the individual versus what is best for the family or the group — and who gets to decide what “best” means. And at the center of it is the thrum of issues of immigration and assimilation. It might be easy to lose sight of the love story under the weight of all of this, but the star power of lead actors Yara Shahidi (“Black-Ish” and “Grown-Ish”) and Charles Melton (“Riverdale,” “Glee”) and the deeply romantic direction of Ry Russo-Young, the romance is in every way the heart of the film.

Natasha (Shahidi) is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who are being deported following an ICE raid of the restaurant where he father works. The family moved to New York when she and her brother were young children, meaning that they are not American citizens in the family on which to base an appeal. As her parents pack up, Natasha goes to ICE to see if she can appeal their decision.

A compassionate case officer says it is too late for him to re-open the case but he gives her the card of a lawyer who might be able to help. Because he cannot see her until noon, later postponed to 4:30, she is stuck downtown, not enough time to go home, but, perhaps enough time to fall in love?

Natasha does not believe in love, or so she says. She dismisses it as romantic hogwash, just a distractingly poetic way to describe hormones. She is interested in data and science. If love cannot be measured and studied according to the strictures of the scientific method, she says, it cannot be true.

The person she says it to is Daniel (Melton), the son of Korean immigrants, who glimpses Natasha at Grand Central Station when he is on his way to a very important alumni interview for Dartmouth. He grabs her away from a careening car that has already knocked down one pedestrian and she accepts his invitation to go for coffee. He is a poet, a romantic, a believer in signs and omens. Natasha’s jacket has the same ancient Greek phrase that he had jotted down in his notebook that morning: deus ex machina. Literally, it translates to “god from the machine,” referring to the mechanical device used in Greek theater to bring the deity characters on stage. But it is a literary term meaning some extraordinary, sometimes supernatural or god-like force that suddenly changes the trajectory of a story, usually resolving it for the better.

Daniel tells Natasha he can make her believe in love. He begins with the famous 36 questions followed by a silent stare into each other’s eyes. She insists that it cannot possibly work, but as the day goes on, she cannot help but be drawn to him. As they watch a show at the Planetarium (perhaps a nod to “Rebel Without a Cause”), she reaches for his hand.

Their walk-and-talk courtship involves visits to each other’s families and some surprising, one might even say cosmic connections. Melton and Shahidi make a graceful transition from television to the big screen, with charisma and chemistry to spare. Their chemistry is almost tactile, with a deep sweetness. With all of their differences in outlook and situation, their shared bond as the children of immigrants, struggling with what they owe to the past and what they dream of for the future is so real to us that by the end we are holding our breath hoping for the magic to go on.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and crude sexual references, a car hitting a pedestrian, and a scuffle between brothers, as well as some issues of family conflict and the prospect of deportation.

Family discussion: Daniel’s father says that Daniel should do what is best for the community. What do you think is best for the community in that context? Can you fall in love by asking each other questions? Was there a time where what you thought was something going wrong turned out to be right? Can tragedy be funny?

If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise,” “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” and “Everything Everything”

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The Best of Enemies

Posted on April 4, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, including racial and disability issues
Date Released to Theaters: April 5, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 1, 2019
Copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

The biggest divide in this big, divided world is not between people of different races or religions or political beliefs; it is between people who have different ideas of who is “us” and who is “them.” “The Best of Enemies” is based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a white supremacist and the Grand Exalted Cyclops (president) of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a black woman who was a community activist working for civil rights and economic justice.

In 1971, Ellis and Atwater were appointed co-chairs of a charette, a dispute resolution mechanism used to resolve complicated community disagreements. Originally developed for land use debates among parties with multiple and varied interests, it was adapted for other kinds of issues by Bill Riddick, played in this film by Babou Ceesay.

Ellis and Atwater lived in Durham, North Carolina. Seventeen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the Durham schools were still divided. When the school attended by the black children burned down, the city had to decide whether to let them attend the school the white children were attending. The court did not want to deal with it, so they asked Bill Riddick to see if he could get the community to come to some agreement.

Ann Atwater worked for Operation Breakthrough but it was more than a profession; it was her calling. We first see her arguing on behalf of a young woman whose apartment is uninhabitable. And throughout the film we see that her entire life is one of advocacy and generosity. Everyone she meets is either someone to be protected or someone to help her protect others. Her sense of “us” encompassed the world.

C.P. Ellis ran a gas station. He loved his family, including a disabled son who lived in a residential facility.  The Klan made him feel respected and important. He created an outreach program to bring teenagers into the Klan. And he organized outings like the time they shot up the home of  a young white woman coming home from a date with a black man.

He agrees to co-chair the charette because he believes that anyone else who got the position would cave. And there are those in the town who would never associate with the Klan but who are glad to support them in private.

Rockwell and Henson make Ellis and Atwater into fully-developed, complex characters. There’s a world of history in the way Henson walks as Atwater, shoulders hunched, hitching her hips along.  In one scene where she reprimands young black boys for tearing down a KKK hood on display, and then straightens it herself after shooing them away, the expression in her eyes speaks volumes about what she has seen.  And when we see the patience and tenderness Ellis has for his disabled son, we get a sense of all he thinks has been taken from him and how much it matters to him to hold on to something that makes him feel powerful.

This is a thoughtful, sincere drama, beautifully performed with a touching conclusion, first of the story itself, and the small acts of kindness that make “thems” into “us-es,” and then with the footage of the real-life Atwater and Ellis. When she takes his arm to help him walk out of the room, our own us-es get a little larger, too.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with issues of bigotry and racism including attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. It includes some strong language with racist epithets and a sexual reference. Characters drink and smoke and there are violent, racially-motivated attacks.

Family discussion: What did Atwater and Ellis have in common? Why did she help his son? Why did she tell the boys not to take down the KKK hood? Who is the Ann Atwater in your community and what are the issues?

If you like this, try: the book by Osha Gray Davidson and the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Green Book

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The Aftermath

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 5:29 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Military violence with some disturbing images, brief Holocaust images, characters injured and killed, sad deaths
Diversity Issues: Post-war ethnic hostilities, Holocaust references
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: June 24, 2019

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019
The Aftermath” is the sort of soapy wartime melodrama people often think of when they complain that they don’t make movies like they did in the old days, except that it has more sex and, if you look past the steamy romance, a disturbing whiff of both sides-ism. The focus of the film is grief and the honorable work of rebuilding — literally, politically, diplomatically, personally after the tragic necessities of war, including demonization of the other side and the inevitable atrocities of country leaders sending young people to kill each other.

It takes place in Hamburg, Germany, five months after the end of World War II. The British are occupying the all-but-destroyed city. As residents comb through the rubble, still seeking thousands of missing people, and we are reminded that the Allies dropped more bombs in a week on the city than Germany dropped on the UK for the entire war, creating an uncomfortable parity. An elegant mansion is requisitioned by the occupying forces for its military leader, Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightley).

They allow the former owner of the home, architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) to live in the attic with his teenage daughter, Freda. Lewis is gone most of the time, trying to maintain order while many Germans are still loyal to Hitler and furious with the Allies and the occupation. Some have burned 88 on their arms (for Heil Hitler, because H is the 8th letter of the alphabet). Rachael spends some time with other Brits stationed there, but she is lonely and still grief-stricken over the death of her young son in a German bombing attack on England.

And then, she begins to see Stefan not as an enemy but as a human, a father, a man of culture, a man mourning his own losses, and also a man who looks very appealing as he chops wood wearing a blue sweater. They are drawn to each other because they are lonely and because each represents for the other a complete break with the past, almost a way to obliterate it.

Author Rhidian Brook based the story on the experiences of his grandfather, which he first sold as a screenplay idea, and then made into a novel while he worked on the script. The issues of transitioning from war to peace, with awkward, useless official inquiries to try to make impossible assignments of guilt, basically asking, “Just how much of a Nazi were you?” are intriguingly raised but not very thoughtfully explored. Lewis is an exemplar of decency and yet cannot comfort his wife. He admits that he has seen and done unspeakable things but cannot talk to his wife about that, either.

There is so much potential here for tying together the issues of the broken city and the broken world and the broken marriage, but instead the focus is on the forbidden romance. As enticing as the steamy love story may be (did I mention the log-chopping scene?), its failure to recognize and address the issues it passes through leave the film, like the home at the center of the story, pretty but empty.

Parents should know that this film includes military and rioter/protest peril and violence with characters injured and killed, some grisly and disturbing images, brief Holocaust photos, some strong language, explicit sexual situations, nudity, non-explicit teen sex, and drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What is the right way to treat citizens of a conquered country? How did Stefan, Lewis, Freda, and Rachael handle grief differently?

If you like this, try: “The Exception” and “Operation Finale”

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The Grinch

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 4:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 4, 2019

Copyright Illumination 2018
My DVD pick of the week is “The Grinch,” which I reviewed for rogerebert.com.

An excerpt:

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.

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