Posted on December 3, 2015 at 3:37 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: A theme of the film is gang-related violence, guns, shooting, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Race and gender issues are the theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 4, 2015
Date Released to DVD: January 25, 2016 ASIN: B017W1P79I

“WAKE UP!” Laurence Fishburne pleads at the end of Spike Lee’s incendiary movie, “School Daze,” not just one of Lee’s best films but one of the most important films of the 1980’s. He was not talking to his fellow students. He was not talking to the camera. He was talking to us in the audience. He was telling all of us to rise above fear and petty differences — and fear of petty differences and stop hurting each other.

Copyright Amazon 2015
Copyright Amazon 2015

That message is even more urgent now, and so “Chi-Raq” is an even more powerful call for all of us to wake up, and it is Lee’s best non-documentary film in many years. It is more than a film; it is an anguished wail of grief and fury and the most important film of 2015.

We call the great Illinois city on the shores of Lake Michigan Chicago, but as the opening lines of the movie explain, for the residents of a South Side community with more violent deaths than the US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is Chi-Raq. In the film a little girl is killed by a stray bullet in a gang-related shooting. She is collateral damage. The week I saw the film, there was a funeral in the very community where it is set for a nine-year-old boy who was a deliberate murder target as an act of reprisal against his father. Even the ultimate symbol of Chicago gangster violence, Al Capone, never went that far. This is not a documentary and the mode of storytelling here is heightened, but there can be no credible claims that what it portrays is unfair or exaggerated.

They feel completely isolated from any kind of help from the outside. Businesses are afraid to come into their community, so there are not jobs or services. The government does not help. The newspapers do not tell their story. Their news is reported by rappers, and in a sensationally dynamic scene in a club a rapper known as Chi-Raq (a fierce Nick Cannon) tells the truth about what they see all around them.

Lee, working with co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott, brilliantly positions this vitally contemporary story as an updated version of a play written in 411 BC, “Lysistrata,” by Aristophanes. Just as the savvy strategist of almost 25 centuries ago plotted with the other women of her community to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War by withholding sexual favors from all of the men, “Chi-Raq’s” Lysistrata (a sizzling performance by “Mad Men’s” Teyonah Parris) sits down with the women from the opposing gang (to continue the classical themes, the gangs are the Trojans and the Spartans) to get them to pledge that there will be no loving until there is no more shooting. The heightened classical overtones include a narrator/chorus who has a Greek-sounding name Dolmedes — inspired by the Blaxploitation hero Dolemite and played by Samuel L. Jackson in a series of natty, brightly colored suits. And then there is the dialog, all in verse, somewhere between rap and iambic pentameter, which actually have a pretty broad overlap.

Lee makes it clear that this is a widespread, even universal problem as women around the world join forces with Lysistrata. And no one escapes responsibility for the carnage, with a searing climax of tragedy and redemption. We see a mother (Jennifer Hudson) scrubbing her little girl’s blood off the street. We see people tweeting the details of a shooting as it happens. Lysistrata is inspired not just by her namesake but by the real-life Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who brought the Christian and Moslem women of Liberia together to stop the fighting in their country. Lee is very clear about who is to blame and who is responsible for making it better: all of us.

And when we see mothers holding pictures of their children killed by guns, we are seeing real mothers, holding pictures of their real children. All of the flash, music, sex, and spectacle are balanced with moments of intimacy, connection, and poignancy, and all are anchored in Lee’s passion for his community. That reality makes this a rare movie that can change the conversation.

Parents should know that this film features gang-related and other violence with tragic outcomes including characters injured and killed, explicit sexual references and situations with nudity, smoking, drinking, and drug use.

Family discussion: What is the best way for the community, the government, and business to stop gang-related violence? How can a movie like this make a difference?

If you like this, try: “School Days,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and read “Lysistrata”

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List: Movies about Peter Pan

Posted on October 7, 2015 at 8:00 am

James M. Barrie’s play “Peter Pan” premiered in 1904 and the story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up is still one of the best-loved of all time. This week the prequel “Pan” opens up in theaters, with Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, and Garrett Hedlund as the young not-yet-captain Hook. And there’s a hit musical on Broadway called “Finding Neverland,” based on the Johnny Depp movie that was based on Barrie’s life, and the friendship with some children that inspired his most famous story.

There was also a theatrical Peter Pan prequel on Broadway called “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

There was a silent film version in 1924.

A generation of baby boomers adored the Mary Martin musical version.

The Disney movie was the first to have the title role played by a boy.

The theatrical version was remade with Cathy Rigby and Sandy Duncan. Here Duncan is introduced by Mary Martin.

Rigby played the part longer than anyone else, more than 30 years.

Steven Spielberg made a sequel called “Hook,” starring Robin Williams with Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell.

The PJ Hogan-directed version had Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook.

And Allison Williams starred in the live telecast last Thanksgiving.

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The Sound of Music Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Posted on March 9, 2015 at 8:00 am

A glorious new 50th anniversary Blu-Ray edition of Sound of Music is out this week, featuring commentary, behind the scenes footage, and all kinds of extras — sure to be one of your “favorite things.”  

This box-office champ is one of the all-time great family musicals, a Rodgers and Hammerstein triumph based on the true story of the Von Trapp family’s escape from Austria.  

140223073354-von-trapp-family-1946-story-bodyMuch of the story is true.  Maria was a postulant, sent by the convent to become a tutor for one of the ten (not seven) children of nobleman and Naval officer Georg Von Trapp. They got married, but it was seven years before the Nazis took over Austria.  Maria always insisted, though, that Georg was not at all like the stern, humorless character of the early scenes.  And they escaped by train, not by the mountains.  A new book about the real story behind the family and the film is a lot of fun: The Sound of Music Story: How A Beguiling Young Novice, A Handsome Austrian Captain, and Ten Singing Von Trapp Children Inspired the Most Beloved Film of All Time.

The movie musical is still one of the all-time greats.  And you can visit the Von Trapp grandchildren and great-grandchildren at their resort in Stowe, Vermont, where they are still singing.

Their home in Austria is also now a hotel.

A&E Biography did an episode about the Von Trapps.

Here’s a glimpse of the children from the Broadway cast on the game show, “What’s My Line?” (They’re at the end of the show.)

Julie Andrews performed a duet with Maria Von Trapp.

And here is one of my favorite songs from the movie.

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Into the Woods

Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Walt Disney Pictures 2014

This is not a Disney movie. Oh, well, yes, it is a Disney movie in the sense that it is produced by Disney, which is the only possible explanation for the PG rating (and the slightly sweetened storyline), but this is not the happily ever after fairy tale story time we are used to from Disney. You didn’t remember that in the original version of Cinderella the mean stepsisters sliced off pieces of their feet to try to fit into the slipper the prince was using to find his true love?  That’s because it was, well, cut out of the classic Disney animated version as well as most contemporary printed versions.  But it’s back here, in a complicated, challenging retelling of classic fairy tales where having your wish granted may leave you worse off than you were before.

Parents looking for a movie for the family for the holidays need to know that this is not this year’s “Frozen.”  It is a sung-through (almost no spoken dialogue) and there are characters who are injured and killed, including parents of young children. It is a darker take on fairy tales.  The characters struggle with the consequences of their wishes and of the actions they take when they want something desperately. They lie and they steal to get what they want. And they learn that no one is all bad or all good. “Though scary is exciting, nice is different from good.”

Writer James Lapine says the idea came from a conversation with his frequent collaborator, Stephen Sondheim, who wanted his next project to be about a quest. Lapine wanted to write something about fairy tales.  And so “Into the Woods” became that project, a mash-up of many different classic fairy tales with a witch, and giants, and a dark place where the paths are not clear, a place for people who are yearning for something and willing to take some risks.  “I wish,” they all sing as the movie begins.  Cinderella, with her evil stepmother (Christine Baranski) and mean girl stepsisters, wishes to go to the festival held by the royal family.  The baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child.  A boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, who has a voice like a bell), wishes his milky-white cow would give milk and his mother (Tracy Ullman) wishes they had money so they could have enough to eat.  And a girl in a red riding hood (the very gifted Lilla Crawford) wants some bread to take to her grandmother (and some pastries for herself).

And there’s a witch (Meryl Streep) who wishes for something, too.  She tells the baker and his wife that she will remove the curse that is keeping them from having a child if they will bring her four things: a cow white as milk, hair gold as corn, a cape red as blood, and a slipper pure as gold.  The problem is that all of these items are essential props in other stories.  If the baker and his wife take them, then Jack will not have a cow to trade for magic beans, Rapunzel will not have hair to let down so her prince can climb the tower, Red Riding Hood will not be able to go to her grandmother’s house, and Cinderella’s prince will not be able to find her.  What happens to wishes when they cancel each other out? When one person’s wish is another’s nightmare? And when the handsome prince explains that he was raised to be Charming, but not necessarily Sincere? Is there any good in being good?

The characters explore themes of innocence, and the competing urges to protect children by keeping them from knowing about the dangers of the world and to protect them by making sure they understand those dangers. “How do you say it will all be all right/When you know that it might not be true?”

Even the witch tries to protect her (stolen) daughter from the scary world outside her tower. But children do not listen. They will grow up and want to leave, even if it means learning “secrets I never wanted to know,” as Red Riding Hood sings thoughtfully, after she is rescued from the belly of the wolf. On the other hand “children will listen,” sometimes when we don’t want them to, so we need to be careful in setting a good example and in taking care of them. And somehow, it is in taking care of them we become most fully ourselves. “Fairy tales understood us before we understood them,” we are told. This exploration of fairy tale themes shows us that they still understand us better than we understand ourselves.

Parents should know that this film includes fairy tale/fantasy peril and violence with some characters injured and killed (including two parents of children), some disturbing images and troubling situations, mild sexual references and non-explicit situations with some kissing.

Family Discussion:  What is your favorite fairy tale and why?  In the song where everyone blames someone else, who is right?

If you like this, try:  Revisionist fairy tales “Ella Enchanted,” “Stardust,” and “Ever After” and, for more from Sondheim, Six by Sondheim and Sondheim: The Birthday Concert

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