Gnomeo & Juliet

Posted on February 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm

What’s in a gnome?

Shakespeare’s tragic romance about the children of warring families has been adapted countless times (a high point: “West Side Story;” a low point: a recent Twitter version), as acknowledged in a cheeky opening monologue to this charming retelling set in the world of garden gnomes and set to the music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

Adjoining homes on Verona Drive have lovingly tended gardens, one with a blue color scheme, the other red. Both are populated with ceramic garden gnomes who come to life when humans are not around and like their owners, the two groups are in a bitter feud, led by Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith) and Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UBbGu6h1Vs&feature=related

When Lady Bluebury’s son Gnomeo (voice of James McAvoy) and his red rival Tybalt (voice of Jason Statham) compete in a lawnmower race, the hotheaded Tybalt cheats to win. Gnomeo decides to cross over into the red side for revenge.

Meanwhile, Lord Redbrick’s daughter Juliet (voice of Emily Blunt) defies her father to disguise herself and cross over to the blue territory to capture a captivating flower. She meets Gnomeo and soon parting will be sweet sorrow and a weed by any other name is still a weed.

They have one perfect date far from home, where they befriend another garden fixture, a long-abandoned plastic pink flamingo (voice of Jim Cummings), and hear his story of the pain of lost love.

Gnomeo and Juliet want to be together, but they do not want to hurt their parents. Lord Redbrick wants Juliet to marry the suitable but dull Paris (voice of Stephen Merchant). Tensions become even more heated between the reds and the blues, especially when one side brings in a monster truck of a lawnmower called the Terrafirminator. Even William Shakespeare’s statue (voice of Patrick Stewart) tries to explain that the story is not supposed to have a happy ending.

But Shakespeare didn’t know about garden gnomes, 3D computer animation, or G ratings, all of which combine to make sure that all’s well that ends well.

The gnomes are nicely weathered-looking, with chips and cracks, and there’s an evocatively gentle ceramic clink when they move or touch each other.

There’s plenty of silly but warm-hearted humor as the characters struggle with the big feelings inside their brittle terra-cotta bodies. Juliet frees a little ceramic fish from a gnome’s fishing pole, and he manages quick grateful appreciation before he sinks straight to the bottom of the pond. The gnomes have to freeze whenever a human comes by, in positions only slightly more absurd than the ones they were originally designed for.

Pop culture references, unavoidable these days in an animated film, are oddly chosen (The “Tiki Room” theme song? “Brokeback Mountain?” Really?) but thankfully brief. And there is much to delight lovers of English literature, with sly references to the bard. We see like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moving van and the street address numbers are 2B and not 2B.

The eclectic voice cast works very well. McAvoy and Blunt show all the tenderness, courage, and spirit one could hope for in the young lovers. It is disarming to see how well Ozzie Osborne’s Fawn and Hulk Hogan’s Terrraforminator announcer share the screen with Dame Maggie and Sir Michael.

But what makes the film most endearing is its unabashed eccentricity. These days, so much entertainment is focus-grouped into safe institutional blandness. It is a rare pleasure to see a film, especially one with eight credited authors including William Shakespeare, with such a singularly loopy sensibility. If you are in the mood for an off-beat take on a classic love story to the sound of the Rocket Man, you will find this one is just as you like it.

(more…)

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For Colored Girls

Posted on February 9, 2011 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some disturbing violence including a rape, sexual content and language
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic rape and abortion scenes and tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 5, 2010
Date Released to DVD: February 8, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B003Y5H4ZC

Tyler Perry’s films frustrate critics and commentators, who are bothered by the awkward mash-ups of high melodrama and low humor and by what many people think is an exaggerated and biased portrayal of men as abusive, neglectful, incompetent, and/or disloyal. And yet, their unprecedented success — he has never had a flop — shows that they speak to the audience in a powerful way. His new film, the first based on material from another writer, reflects a more literary ambition but it is likely to create the same divide between those find that it feels true to their experience and those who think it still aims too low and is likely to perpetuate prejudice inside and outside the African-American community.

Ntozake Shange (born Paulette Williams) was only 23 years old when her groundbreaking “choreopoem” called “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” first astonished audiences in 1975. The ferocity and rage of the theatrical experience spoke to generations of women, especially women of color, who felt for the first time that they were seeing themselves and people they knew center stage. There was no Oprah back then. The idea of a black woman speaking honestly about her struggles for respect from others and from herself felt revolutionary.

The play’s characters were symbols, their only names the colors of the clothes they wore. They spoke very frankly about topics seldom addressed publicly, much less on stage, and much, much less from the woman’s side of the experience: rape, molestation, betrayal, and oppression. With dance and poetry they expressed their longing for love and acceptance despite the best efforts of individuals, religious organizations, and society at large to make them feel less than beautiful and less than lovable. This was an era when “the personal is political” was a mantra for women who were beginning to question millennia of traditional notions of what they were and how much potential there was for them.

A great deal has changed since 1975, including the emergence of Perry, one of the choreopoem’s biggest fans and clearly influenced by it, as a major power player in Hollywood. Perry has become an omnimedia mogul with live theater, DVDs, films like “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “Madea Goes to Jail” and the television series “Meet the Browns” and “House of Payne,” along with the best-seller, Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life. The very power behind and in front of the camera, with nine well-known actresses, provides some counterpoint that puts at risk the unrelenting direness of these characters’ lives.

And yet, these words and these stories may still resonate with any woman who has struggled to love herself enough to expect and deserve love from others. While the nine main characters in and out of each other’s lives have their own stories, they can be seen as different aspects of one woman, or of all women. Tangie (a sizzling Thandie Newton) is almost feral as a bartender who uses men for sex, thinking it makes her the strong one. Her mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), who thinks she gets strength from religious fervor and judgment. Alice is furious with Tangie but thinks that her other daughter, Nyla (the incandescent Tessa Thompson), is close to perfect. Which is why Nyla can’t tell Alice the truth about how much trouble she is in.

Crystal (Kimberly Elise) thinks she has the strength to care for her children, her demanding employer, and the man in her life who loves her deeply but is mentally unstable following his experience in the military. Juanita (Loretta Devine) does not know if she can trust the man she loves. Jasmine (Anika Noni Rose) does not know that she cannot trust the man who seems so gentlemanly. Kelly (Kerry Washington), a social worker, is the only woman in this film who has a man she can trust and rely on, is so concerned about whether she can conceive (due to abuse from another man) that she neglects one of her clients, with tragic consequences. And Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) sees it all and does her best to warn, to teach, and to help.

Perry just sketches in enough story to provide settings for the poetic monologues and he shows some appealing delicacy in balancing the gritty reality of the women’s lives with the more lyrical qualities of their speeches, beautifully delivered by actresses of great talent and beauty. At its best, it has a dreamlike quality and some of the speeches are beautifully done. The film makes a brave effort to show that the victims of abuse have to take responsibility for acting as enablers. But some of the material seems as outdated as the title, and the unrelenting melodrama gets out of hand near the end with an unfortunate speech about being sorry that does not work, despite the best efforts of Janet Jackson. Perry clearly cherishes all of these women, the performers on screen and the characters they play, and the sincerity of his devotion to them and to the material keeps what is on screen watchable even when it does not work as a film.

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Based on a play Drama Movies

Rabbit Hole

Posted on December 23, 2010 at 7:43 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some drug use and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: References to tragic deaths, tense and unhappy confrontations
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2010

When you suffer a devastating loss, there is the pain of missing what you once had. But there is pain that goes beyond the space circumscribed by the person who is gone. Grief is its own planet and everyone who goes there lives alone.
“Rabbit Hole” begins eight months after the death of a little boy. His parents move like highly functional but very fragile zombies through their lives. Some of those around them, think and even use words like “closure” and “move on” and even “try again,” mostly out of their own discomfort at the way this loss has threatened their own sense of the rightness of the world. Others just stay away, paralyzed by their inability to think of anything to say in this most unthinkable of moments. And Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are still being confronted with horrifically painful decisions — should they keep or get rid of their child’s things? — and even more painful reminders that for others life goes on (Becca’s careless sister is pregnant). Rabbit-Hole-Poster.jpg
David Lindsay-Abaire has sensitively adapted his award-winning play by to the screen and with director John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Shortbus”) has filled the story with privileged moments, beautifully performed by Nicole Kidman (Becca) and Aaron Eckhart (Howie). Both of them have to find a way to re-invent their interaction with the world or perhaps to re-invent their understanding of what world they live in. Her response is to hold everything inside, to try to maintain control. She affects an almost grotesque normality. When he comes up behind her for a hug as she is at the stove, she is bright but brittle as she shoos him away. She rolls her eyes at the support group for bereaved parents and will not return. But Howie wants to hold on to his memories and process his pain; he needs that kind of contact. He stays in the group. He keeps watching a video of their son — until Becca erases it.
They cannot reach out to each other, but each reaches out to someone else who is uniquely understanding. Howie becomes close to the leader of the bereavement group (Sandra Oh). And Becca watches and then begins to talk to the teenager who was driving the car that killed her son. It is heart-wrenching to see how he is able to reach her instincts as a mother, feelings for which she no longer has any other place.
This is a touching, insightful film with exquisite performances. If we all grieve on our own planet, it is art like this that illuminates the way home.

(more…)

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Based on a play Drama Movies

The Tempest

Posted on December 9, 2010 at 8:43 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some nudity, suggestive content and scary images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters get drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Shipwreck, fighting, threats of murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 10, 2010
Date Released to DVD: September 12, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B004M9ZI0M

Director Julie Taymor (Broadway’s “The Lion King”) has a gorgeous visual imagination and a love of spectacle, both lavishly on display in the latest version Shakespeare’s final play, the story of a sorcerer’s revenge. But she uses it to enhance, not distract from the real magic of dazzling language spoken by magnificent actors.

The play’s Duke-turned wizard Prospero now becomes Prospera (Dame Helen Mirren), the wife of the Duke who was so distracted by her study of magic that her position was usurped by her husband’s brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper). She escaped with her daughter Miranda, with the help of the king’s adviser, Gonzalo (Tom Conti). For twelve years, they have been living on an island, cared for by a sprite named Ariel (Ben Wishaw) and the son of a witch named Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). Miranda barely knows that any other world exists.

Returning home by ship after a wedding, Antonio, Gonzalo, the King (David Straithairn), and their courtiers encounter a storm called up by Prospera, and they are shipwrecked and separated, each fearing all the others have died. Promising Ariel and Caliban their freedom if they help her, Prospera directs — and misdirects — the bewildered survivors. She puts Miranda in the path of the king’s son, Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), and they fall instantly in love. Prospera is delighted, but pretends to be angry and orders him to hard labor: “this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.”

Meanwhile, the king and Gonzalo are searching for Ferdinand, with Antonio and the king’s brother, Sebastian (Alan Cumming), who realize that if they can kill the other two, Sebastian will be king. Prospera stops them with magic.

And then there is Trinculo (Russell Brand), the jester and Stephano (Alfred Molina), the drunken butler. They find Caliban, who is happy to switch his allegiance to them, especially when they give him his first taste of liquor.

Mirren is fiery and magesterial, holding her magic staff to the sky and commanding Ariel and Caliban. But she shows us Prospera’s devotion to Miranda and recognition that she contributed to her fate by allowing herself to be too caught up in magic to notice that Antonio was betraying her. She understands that the price for this greatest display of her art and her gifts so that she can return home will be to give it all up forever. The young lovers are a little bland, but the rest of the cast is exceptional — and surprisingly organic, considering that it includes classically-trained British stage actors like Mirren, Cumming, and Molina with American performers Cooper and Straithairn, three-continent Honsou and all-around wild child Brand. The visual touches perfectly evoke the themes of order and chaos, with Escher-esque steps vertiginously reaching bannister-less up the walls, found object-based props, and Prospera’s final costume, a fabulous mixture of natural material and tight, civilizing straps and stays.

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The Sound of Music

Posted on November 8, 2010 at 8:00 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Tension as the family escapes, Nazi threat
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: 1965
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2010
Amazon.com ASIN: B003VS0CX8

The Sound of Music is out in a gorgeous new 45th anniversary edition Blu-Ray/DVD combo. The beloved family musical is the fictionalized story of Maria von Trapp (Julie Andrews). It is an outstanding family film, filled with glorious music (“Do Re Me,” “My Favorite Things,” “Eidelweiss,” So Long, Farewell”), a real-life love story right out of Jane Eyre, a courageous moral choice, and a heart-stopping escape.

As a postulant, Maria is “not a credit to the Abbey.” While she means well, she is constantly in trouble. The wise Mother Abbess sends her away to be the governess for the seven children of a stern widower, Captain von Trapp. Obedient to their disciplinarian father, the children are uncooperative with Maria until she wins them over with her own high spirits, as well as her kindness. She also shares her love of music, and her joy in the beauty around them, and they become devoted to each other.

The Captain’s friend Max (Richard Hadyn) hears the children sing, and wants them to perform at the local festival. But the Captain refuses, thinking it is foolish and inappropriate. Meanwhile, the Captain is considering marriage to a titled and wealthy woman, and his oldest daughter, Leisel, is beginning a romance with Rolfe. And as the Nazis threaten control of Austria, the Captain knows that his military skill and experience will lead them to him. He knows that they will ask him to join them, and that they will not accept a negative answer.

Maria, realizing that she has fallen in love with the Captain, runs back to the Abbey. But the Mother Abbess counsels her to follow her heart, and she returns to the children. The Captain realizes that he loves Maria, and they are married in the Abbey. They return from their honeymoon to find that an invitation to join the Nazi navy is waiting.

Max has put the children on the festival program, hoping the Captain would relent. He forbids them to participate and makes plans to escape. But when the Nazis arrive to stop him, he explains that they are just on their way to perform at the festival. The Nazis escort them to the festival, where they win first prize, and use their encore number to camouflage their escape. On their way out of Austria, they are betrayed by Rolfe, now a Nazi, but protected by the nuns in the Abbey, and they leave for Switzerland, over Maria’s beloved mountains.

Discussion: A number of people in this movie must make important choices when they face challenges that are completely unexpected. Maria and the Captain both thought they had established what their lives would be like. Maria planned to be a nun, and to live in the Abbey all her life. The Captain expected to continue with the life he had, a loving but stern father to his children and a respected aristocrat and military leader. His family had always lived in Austria, and he expected his children and grandchildren would live there, too. Maria’s unexpected challenge comes from within herself. She is lucky to have the wise Mother Abbess to help her examine her heart to learn that she is better suited for a life outside the Abbey.

The Captain is used to being in control. It may be that his regimental approach to the children is as much prompted by a need to feel in greater control following the loss of his wife as it is by his military training. His original inclination to marry the Baroness seems to be led by his head rather than his heart; it feels more like an alliance than a romance. But he finds that he cannot resist Maria’s warm and loving heart.

Just as all of this is happening, every aspect of the life they had known in Austria is challenged by the Nazis. Unlike his friends, the Captain does not have the option of making a slight accommodation to the Nazis. He must fight for them, if he wants to keep his home. He gives up every material possession he has to get away, preserving freedom for himself and his family.

Everyone in Austria has to make a choice when the Nazis arrive. Rolfe becomes so committed to the Nazis that he is willing to betray the young woman he cared for. Even the nuns in the Abbey must make a choice. They decide to protect the Von Trapps and impede the Nazis, risking their own freedom. Children, especially young children, will need some background to understand what these choices involved and what the risks were. It is also worthwhile to discuss with them the sweet song that the Captain sings to Maria, telling her that he must have done something good in his past to deserve her love and the happiness she has given him.

Questions for Kids:

· Why does Maria have a problem fitting in at the Abbey?

· What does the Captain learn from Maria?

· The same people wrote the song about “My Favorite Things” and “Whistle a Happy Tune” in “The King and I.” How are they alike? (Think about when it is that Maria sings the song.) If you were going to write the song, what would be on your list of favorite things?

· What is the difference between the way the Captain, Max, and Rolfe react to the Nazis?

· What does the song, “Climb Every Mountain” mean?

Connections: Sister Sophia is played by Marni Nixon, a rare onscreen appearance by the off-screen singing voice from “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story” and “The King and I.”

Activities: Kids who enjoy this movie can read more about the real-life family in one of the books written by Maria von Trapp, and can visit the Trapp family’s lodge in Stowe, Vermont. Find Austria, Germany, and Switzerland on a map but do not try to trace the family’s escape route. If they had climbed over the mountains they took in the movie, they would have ended up in Germany.

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