The Fabelmans

Posted on November 20, 2022 at 3:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence, some strong language, and drug use
Alcohol/ Drugs: alcohol, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Bullies
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 23, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
A small boy is about to see his first movie, and it is 1952, so it is in a big, dark theater, on a big, bright screen. His engineer father is explaining persistence of vision, the optical/neurological factors that make us think that still pictures shown to us 22 times a second are moving. “The photographs pass faster than your brain can keep up.” His artist/musician mother has a different description of what movies are: “They’re like dreams that we never forget.” And of course, both are right.

That boy will be dazzled by the movie, which would go on to win the Oscar for best picture in 1952, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” an exciting story of a circus. The train crash sequence was so big and so real that he could not get it out of his mind for days and days. He asks his parents for a train set for Hanukkah, and as he opened up a new train car each night he imagined re-creating — understanding — controlling — that crash. His father (Paul Dano as Burt) chides him for breaking the train. His mother (Michelle Williams as Mitzi) suggests that he take the family’s home movie camera and film one last crash, so he can watch it as many times as he likes.

As the title suggests, “The Fabelmans” has a touch of myth, of movie magic, as Mrs. Fabelman would say, a dream. But it is also as Mr. Fabelman would approve, grounded in facts and mechanical reality. Steven Spielberg co-wrote the film with Tony Kushner, based on his own life as a child and a teenager. It brims with love for his family, with the kind of understanding that it takes decades to achieve, if ever. And it is told with the true mastery of a brilliant filmmaker equally grounded in the mechanics of movies and the creation of big, engrossing dreams for us to watch together in the dark.

No one understands cinematic storytelling better than Spielberg, and seeing him tell his own story using the very techniques this film gives us a chance to see as they develop makes this one of the best films of the year and one of the best films ever from a master storyteller. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and music by Spielberg’s longtime favorite John Williams gorgeously evoke the past without making it seem musty or distant. Watching it feels like a gift.

As the movie begins, money is tight and Burt has to supplement his salary by fixing televisions. But his gift in designing the fundamentals that would lead to personal computers leads to a new job offer in Phoenix. The Fabelmans move, and Burt brings along his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), so beloved by everyone that he feels like family. Burt is a loving husband and father but very serious and methodical. Bennie is fun, always making everyone laugh.

Sammy keeps making movies, casting his younger sisters and later his Boy Scout troop in remarkably ambitious and creative films (you can see the real ones, meticulously re-created here, on YouTube). As a teenager, now sensitively played by Gabriel LaBelle, his movies get more complex. In one lovely moment, a hole punched in sheet music by a high heeled shoe inspires a brilliant and very analog special effect only the son of both an artist and an engineer could concoct.

Form and content follow each other and intertwine, especially with a sensational final shot, as Sammy/Steve begins to understand the potential and the power of story-telling. When his mother is sad, his father asks him to make a movie to cheer her up. When he is editing one of his family films, he sees on celluloid what he missed when he was standing there. When he cannot tell his mother why he is upset, shows her a film to explain. In an agonizing moment, he cradles the camera like a teddy bear. Through chance, he is able to use a professional camera and through a combination of determination and chance he meets and gets some surprising advice from one of the all-time movie greats.

He is confronted with the challenges of family conflict and adolescence. He is bullied for being Jewish. He wants to kiss a girl. He feels betrayed by two people he loves. An uncle in show business (a terrific brief role for Judd Hirsch) tells him that he will always be torn between love and art — and that he will choose art.

Williams and Dano are superb as the Fabelmans. As Mitzi watches the movie Sammy made for her and as she tries to explain a difficult decision to Sammy we see clearly the range of emotions she is feeling, including the perpetual struggle of all parents between her needs and the wishes of her children. Spielberg and Kushner bring compassion to these characters that they themselves struggle to find.

They also convey the exceptional ability to observe and analyze that is the great gift of any artist, to be cherished and nourished by imagination, but that must be reined in to allow for personal connection. Only the rarest of talents can bring both to their work and that is what makes this film a joy.

NOTE: My daughter worked on some of the costumes of this film which are, of course, outstanding under the direction of Oscar-winner Mark Bridges.

Parents should know that this film includes family tensions, adultery, and divorce, some strong language, alcohol and marijuana.

Family discussion: Why could Sammy see things more clearly through the camera than he could without it? Why was Logan upset by the Ditch Day movie? How did each of his parents influence Sammy?

If you like this, try: “Belfast” and Spielberg movies like “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

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Till

Posted on October 13, 2022 at 5:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs
Profanity: Racist epithets
Date Released to Theaters: October 28, 2022
Date Released to DVD: January 16, 2023

Copyright 2022 Orion Pictures
In March of 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. It only took 67 years.

It was in 1955 that a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. “Till” is his story, but it is more importantly the story of his mother, who responded to the greatest pain a parent can experience with determination to save other families from that kind of tragedy. I will give her the respect denied her by the white people of Mississippi and refer to Till’s mother, later known as Mamie Till-Mobley, as she was by the Black people who honored her during this period, Mrs. Bradley. She is played with infinite grace and dignity by Danielle Deadwyler in a performance that is one of the most thrilling of the year.

Emmett (Jalyn Hall) was a happy, friendly, high-spirited boy who was devoted to his single mother and thought the world was a safe place. We first see him with his mother at Chicago’s famous department store, Marshall Field’s, politely responding to a clerk who suggests that she shop in the basement, clearly a racist response. Mrs. Bradley tries to warn Emmett that things are different in the Jim Crow South, that he must be careful, ultra-respectful, and, if called upon, get down on his knees and beg forgiveness for any suspected slight. But Emmett is young and a bit of a show-off. His casual demeanor and his speaking to the 21-year-old white woman at the cash register was considered an insult. And so, Her husband and his friend banged on the door of Till’s relatives, took him from their home at gunpoint, and murdered him.

Mississippi wanted to bury him there, along with the story. But with the intervention of the NAACP, his body was returned to Chicago, so abused and mutilated that it was barely recognizable as human. The mortician urged her not to look and to close the casket at the funeral because, he says carefully, “He’s not in the right shape” to be seen. But Mrs. Bradley insisted that he must be seen, that what happened to him must be understood. The moments of her communion with her son’s body, the faces of those viewing him at the funeral, and Deadwyler’s description in court testimony of how she was able to identify him as her son are galvanizing. “He is in just the right shape. The world is going to see what they did to my boy,” she says. That legacy continues with this important, impactful film.

Parents should know that this movie is the true story of a brutal hate crime. The murder is sensitively handled, but we do see, as Mrs. Bradley would have wanted, his body and the reactions of the people who viewed the open casket. Characters smoke, drink and use racist language, including the n-word.

Family discussion: How does the experience of Emmett Till relate to the issues raised by Black Lives Matter today? What do we learn from her conversation with Preacher? Why did Mrs. Bradley’s decision to speak out make a difference?

If you like this, try: “The Murder of Emmett Till” from the PBS series “American Experience,” the “Eyes on the Prize” series, “For Us the Living,” about Medgar Evers, and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” about the lawyers who finally brought his murderers to justice. You can read about the 2022 decision not to charge the woman who wrongly accused Emmett Till here and contribute to the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation here.

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Thirteen Lives

Posted on August 4, 2022 at 5:17 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and unsettling images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and tense rescue operations, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Race and economic/nationality status issues
Date Released to Theaters: August 5, 2022

Copyright Imagine 2022
Twelve young boys. One coach. Seventeen days trapped. More than 5000 rescue workers from many countries. The eyes of the world were on Thailand’s Tham Luang cave in June and July of 2018 as a soccer team exploring a cave they knew well were trapped by a sudden early monsoon that flooded it before they could get out. One more number: two and a half miles. That is how far they were from the entrance, and for almost two weeks the cave was so impenetrable that no one knew if any of them were still alive.

“Rescue” is a fine documentary about the courage and dedication of the rescuers, especially the British and Australian volunteer race rescue divers who came up with an idea so dangerous and crazy it could only become an option when every other possibility was out of the question. Ron Howard’s feature film has excellent performances from Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, and Joel Edgerton as the divers and skillful use of the camera to put us inside the narrow, claustrophobic passages of the cave with no visibility and terrifyingly swift currents. Like his best film which also plays into triskaidekaphobian fears, “Apollo 13,” this is a tick-tock tension movie, with smart people trying to solve dire, unprecedented problems under excruciating time pressure.

It is June 2018. The boys are playing soccer and talking about a SpongeBob birthday cake at an upcoming party. They ride their bicycles to the cave, with the “Sleeping Princess” shrine at the entrance. There should be plenty of time before monsoon season closes the cave until the fall. But there is not. A drenching rainstorm cuts off the exit and slowly, as the parents come looking for the boys, it is clear they are trapped inside.

The Thai Navy SEALS arrive, well-trained and courageous. But rescuing people from an ocean is very different from the highly specialized rescues of the volunteer cave divers. It turns out there is a small, dedicated, endlessly skillful and endlessly courageous group of people who are cave diving rescuers, including Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), and joining later, Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton).

Given how much of the story is under murky water in a dark cavern filled with sharp points and tiny, twisty passages, Howard does a very good job of keeping us on top what is going on, how much time has passed, and how far we are from the tiny, precarious shelf where the boys and their coach are perched. For those who are not familiar with the details (though likely everyone is aware of the miraculous outcome) there are some dramatic twists and surprises to accompany the understated but immensely powerful story of the rescue divers. Americans will enjoy the classically British understatement that only underscores the breathtaking heroics of the story and the modesty and gratitude of the boys, the coach, and their families. The unquenchable hope, the remarkable resilience, and the cooperation of all involved, including the farmers who agreed to have their year’s crops wiped out so that water could be diverted from the cave are a story of uplift and the best that humanity has to offer.

Parents should know that this is a tense depiction of a dire real-life rescue involving children with some very high-risk choices. Characters are injured and killed and there is some strong language.

Family discussion: How did the group make the decision to take such a high-risk option? What were the biggest obstacles to the rescue other than the physical challenge of the water in the cave? What circumstances would make you fly halfway around the world to help people you’ve never met?

If you like this, try: the National Geographic documentary “The Rescue” and Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13”

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Elvis

Posted on June 20, 2022 at 9:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 12, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2022
Director Baz Luhrmann is a natural choice for the story of Elvis Presley, both known for the ultimate in showmanship, making excess into an asset. Right off the bat, the nearly-three-hour movie opens with a bedazzled version of the Warner Brothers logo, as though it was designed by the tailor who did Elvis’ late-career wardrobe. Unabashedly theatrical, even more unabashedly on the side of its title subject, “Elvis” is a love letter, not a history lesson. It celebrates excess; it almost wallows in it. But it does so joyfully.

It begins with Colonel or rather “Colonel” Parker (Tom Hanks in a fat suit, with a weird accent and fake nose. “Citizen Kane” style, on what could be his deathbed, reminiscing about what he has loved and lost. As we hear his narration, we see him, in his hospital gown, wandering through a deserted Las Vegas casino, telling us about his connection to the young singer from Tupelo.

Elvis (played as a boy by Chaydon Jay) lives with his parents Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) and Gladys (Helen Thomson) in a Black neighborhood, where he is thrilled by the music around him, the sacred (gospel) and the profane (down and dirty blues). He is also immersed in country music, and somehow he (played as a teen and adult by a terrific Austin Butler) finds a way to synthesize all three into proto-rock and roll. Colonel Parker, a carny promoter, hears his music and realizes that he has the opportunity of the century, a white singer who sounds Black. Elvis is on the bill with a country star. He’s nervous at first on stage in his flamboyant pink suit, but then, like the revival meeting attendees struck by the spirit, he is, well, all shook up. And so is the audience. It’s almost like the Conrad Birdie “Sincere” scene in “Bye Bye Birdie.” Luhrmann brings a palpable, kinetic energy to the scene that is cheekily over the top.

The musical numbers (all but the very early ones with Elvis’ own voice) are dynamic, and an extended section where Colonel Parker sells the television network and the sponsor on an Elvis Christmas special featuring Elvis in a Christmas sweater singing carols and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Elvis, still true to his muse, insists on wearing a black leather suit (now iconic, as is that entire 1968 special. The world changed around him but Elvis was never less than a thrilling performer, as we see at the end of film, with a short clip of his last performance, clearly ill and impaired, but nailing one of the most difficult songs of all, “Unchained Melody.”

The musical numbers: great. The romance with teenage Priscilla: not given much attention. The relationship with Colonel Parker: the central focus of the movie and the weakest part of the movie. We get no real insight into the internal lives of either characters; there’s an emptiness to the film when Elvis is not on stage. That could be the point of the movie, but it never acknowledges it. Tom Hanks never disappears into Colonel Parker. Compare him to Paul Giamatti in the similarly themed “Love and Mercy,” where the individuals and the manipulative, enticing, and abusive elements of the relationship were much more clearly defined.

I enjoyed the film. But then I came home and watched a half hour of clips of Elvis, and I enjoyed that a lot more.
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Parents should know that this movie includes sex (non-explicit), drugs, and of course rock and roll, along with some bad behavior, relationship conflicts, and sad deaths.

Family discussion: Why was it so hard for Elvis to break off his relationship with Colonel Parker? How did Colonel Parker manipulate him? How is celebrity different today and how is it the same?

If you like this, try: Some of Elvis’ best movies like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Viva Las Vegas”

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Jerry and Marge Go Large

Posted on June 16, 2022 at 5:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for for some language and suggestive reference
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2022

Copyright Paramount 2022
Hey parents! Next time your kids tell you that they’ll never need math, show them “Jerry and Marge Go Large,” based on the true story of a retiree who used math to figure out a loophole in the state lottery and won $26 million. If it pads out the storyline a bit, that’s okay because we can all us a Frank Capra-esque real-life fairy tale right now. Capra, of course, was one of Hollywood’s most beloved directors, whose movies were often affectionately (or derisively) called “Capra-corn” for their populist stories of communities coming together and characters realizing that money was not as important as family and sharing with those we love.

It really happened. Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening play Jerry and Marge. In the film, he is forced to retire after 42 years working as a line manager at a cereal company and he has no idea what to do with his time. “I don’t have any regular clothes,” he says. His children give him a fishing boat as a retirement gift. “Do I like fishing?” he asks Marge.

Jerry has spent his whole life on “must do.” He never had a chance to think about “love to do” or even “want to do.” He does like math, though. He does Sudoku puzzles for fun. And one day, when a new state lottery called Winfall is announced, he realizes that the state lottery commission has miscalculated. This next part is a little math-y, but it won’t last long. Normally, if no one wins the lottery, the prize money rolls over, which is how you get these gigantic Powerball payouts. But they did something different with the Winfall. If no one had all the numbers right, there was a “roll down” and the prize money went to the people who got most of the numbers. Jerry did the math and figured out that he could get enough numbers right to guarantee a win if he bought enough tickets.

At first, he does not tell Marge. But when she finds out, she is delighted. It is not about the money. She wants to feel excited about something and she wants them to have an adventure together. “I want to have fun,” she says. “Let’s be a little stupid. We got married when we were 17 so we know how to do it. I’d rob a bank if it gives us something to talk about.”

And so they are off on an adventure, with the help of friends, including a scruffy convenience store manager (Rainn Wilson) and an accountant (Larry Wilmore). And there is a villain, a smart student who spotted the same loophole and wants all of the lottery winnings.

Cranston and Bening bring magnetism, chemistry, and wit to the central relationship. Some might overlook this quiet, retired couple, but that does not include their community or those of us who enjoy seeing unassuming, good people get what they deserve and share what they get with those they love.

Parents should know that this movie has some strong language, college student misbehavior, and suggestive references.

Family discussion: What would you do with $26 million? When has math been helpful to you?

If you like this, try: “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (the original version starring Gary Cooper)

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