Sing 2

Posted on December 22, 2021 at 11:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude material, mild peril/violence
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: Some humor about a disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 28, 2022

Copyright 2021 Illumination
This sequel wisely jettisons the less interesting plot lines from the original, the backstories of the animals with dreams of singing before cheering audiences, in favor of what worked best the first time, the performances themselves. “Sing 2” is all about putting on a show, and it begins with a smashing version of Prince’s “Let’s go Crazy.” There’s a lot happening, but take a moment to notice the costumes worn by the performers. They were created by high fashion house Rodarte.

Koala impressario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) has a bigger dream than ever. He wants to take his performers to the entertainment capital of the world, Redshore City, with its enormous and ultra-glamorous theater, the Crystal Tower. It is run by Mr. Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a tough-talking wolf who only agrees to let them put on their show if they can promise to deliver the lion rock star-turned recluse Clay Calloway (Bono). Moon promises that he will, though he has no idea where Calloway is or how to persuade him to return to performing. There’s a bigger problem. He has the performers, including porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), pig and mother of innumerable piglets Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), and shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly). But despite what they promised Mr. Crystal, they do not have a show, only a concept from Gunter (Nick Kroll) of a space opera titled “Out of this World.” They don’t have enough information to tell the crew what kind of sets to build except that it is set on four different planets and there is a spaceship.

All of which sets up various shenanigans as the little group tries to keep Mr. Crystal from finding out what is going on as they track down Clay Calloway and get the show ready. There are some additional complicating factors. Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha wants to be in the show even though her acting is terrible (she can sing, though; she is voiced by pop star Halsey), and her daddy thinks she should have whatever she wants. Johnny cannot learn the complicated moves from the choreographer. Meena’s new co-star is an arrogant Yak (Eric André), who intimidates her. The ice cream guy, though, has her bashful heart fluttering.

All of this is done with heart and humor that will delight young audiences while the parents will get a kick out of the eclectic mix of songs, from Grammy-winning favorites to esoteric Indies and even a little Prokofiev. The audition scene is like a lightning round of Name That Tune. Bono’s rumble makes a great vocal contribution as Clay, and the poignance of his grief gives the story greater heft. There’s even a new U2 song on the soundtrack to underscore in both senses of the word) the way that music can heal and connect. It adds to the ebullience of the film, and like all great music, inspires calls for an encore.

Parents should know that there is some cartoon-style peril and threats of violence and some mild humor about a character’s disability, in addition to some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which character is your favorite? What musical show would you like to create? What is Porsha good at?

If you like this, try: the first “Sing” and the Trolls movies.

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C’mon C’mon

Posted on November 24, 2021 at 2:18 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, graphic nudity, and some sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress, sad offscreen death, mental illness of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 19, 2021
Date Released to DVD: April 11, 2022

Copyright A24 2021
I can’t remember a movie that captured as well as Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” the intense, constant feelings of terror, inadequacy, panic, exhaustion, that is parenthood, plus the tsunami of love and gratitude and hope and hilarity. He even captures the heartbreaking sorrow in understanding that childhood is fleeting and no matter what you do you cannot protect them from the injustices of the world. This is one of the best films of the year.

Writer/director Mills based his previous films on his parents. Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his role in “Beginners,” based on Mills’ father, who came out as gay late in life. Annette Bening’s role in “20th Century Women” was based on Mills’ mother. In both films, there were son characters based on Mills himself. “C’mon C’mon,” filmed in gorgeous black and white and even more gorgeous, capacious humanity, was inspired by Mills’ experience of being a father.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a “This American Life”-ish radio producer who is traveling around the country interviewing kids and teenagers about their thoughts on their lives, what superpower they’d like to have, and what the future holds (the interviews in the film are unscripted, real responses from students). His sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), from whom he has been a bit estranged since the death of their mother, needs him to care for her nine-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), as she deals with a family emergency. Her ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is bi-polar and is having a breakdown. And so Johnny, something of a loner who is most comfortable talking to others in the formalized — and one-sided — setting of an interview,” unexpectedly becomes the sole guardian of a nine-year-old for a period that keeps getting extended.

Johny and Viv are constantly on the phone as he needs advice or she needs reassurance that Jesse is okay. Johnny tells her, with mock mansplaining, “You know, as a mother, you’re not gonna understand this, but working all day and taking care of a kid is just a lot.”

There are so many movies that could be made about this set-up, and I think we’ve seen most of them, from cheesy slapstick to cheesy sentimental. Mills has something far more subtle, meaningful, and insightful in mind. Phoenix, known for showboaty roles like his Oscar-winning Joker, gives a career-best performance here as Johnny, and Norman is a wonder as Jesse, making it impossible to believe he can be acting because his performance is unaffected, pure, and in the moment. It is astonishing to learn that not only is he not Jesse from California; he is not even American. He is British and lives in London. His chemistry with Phoenix is so natural we do not just feel they’ve known each other forever; we feel we’ve known them both forever. They are our family; they are us.

Jesse, too, separates himself from the world by processing it through Johnny’s microphone. And, as children do, he processes the unthinkably sad and scary abandonments of his mentally ill father and devoted but conflicted mother through play and sometimes through acting out. Jesse pretends he is an orphan. Johnny looks away for a second and Jesse disappears. They laugh. They get angry. They make mistakes and they apologize. And Johnny begins to understand that you cannot be right all the time with a child and the best you can do is to be completely present, completely open. In its way, that is what the best movies do, and this is one of them.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, a sad offscreen death, and mental illness of a parent.

Family discussion: What mistakes did Johnny and Jesse make? What did they learn from them?

If you like this, try: “Beginners,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “20th Century Women”

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Clifford the Big Red Dog

Posted on November 9, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic element, mild action, impolite humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild fantasy peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2021

Copyright Paramount 2021
The title Clifford the Big Red Dog tells it all: this is a movie about a little girl who fills a red dog with so much love he becomes giant-sized overnight. He causes a lot of chaos. A bad guy tries to steal him. That’s the story.

It began with a 1963 book by Norman Bridwell, a very simple story designed for pre- and beginning readers, about a girl named Emily Elizabeth and her gigantic red dog. He isn’t perfect. He did not win a prize at the dog show. But she loves him the way he is. This led to 79 more books, with Clifford doing everything from going to the hospital and learning about opposites, numbers, school, and friendship to celebrating Hanukkah, Mother’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. Clifford also appeared on television in animated series, voiced originally by the late John Ritter, and in video games.

In this live-action feature, Clifford does not speak. And we learn a lot more about Emily Elizabeth, played by the very appealing Darby Camp. She lives with her loving but overstressed single mom, Maggie (Sienna Guillory). Emily Elizabeth is having some problems in school, because some mean girls make fun of her for being a scholarship student. When Maggie has to go out of town on a business trip, she reluctantly has her brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) move out of the van he has been sleeping in and into her apartment to take care of Emily Elizabeth. Casey is well-meaning but immature and about halfway between haphazard and criminal neglect. (Question to ponder: Why doesn’t Whitehall use his actual British accent since he is playing the brother of an English woman who does have an accent and it requires a useless explanation for why he has an American accent.)

At a pet fair, they meet a mysterious and possibly magical guy named Bridwell (a tribute to the author the books), played by John Cleese with a twinkle in his eye. Among the exotic animals is an adorable tiny little red puppy. “How big is he going to get?” “It depends on how much you love him,” Bridwell tells her. It’s a lot of love because the next morning he is the size of a one-story house. Oh, and there is a strictly-enforced no pets policy in the building, enforced by the super (David Alan Grier).

There are no surprises in the movie and it may drag for anyone over 8, but it is nicely diverse, with a sense of community and a strong supporting cast that includes “SNL’s” Kenan Thompson as an obliging veterinarian and Tony Hale as the tech CEO who is willing to do anything to find the source of Clifford’s growth. It is not necessary to make her one supportive classmate have a crush on her instead of just being a friend. But it is nice to see that friend’s father and some of the other adults so helpful and kind. It’s by no means a classic but kids will enjoy the comic mayhem and happy ending and parents will enjoy their enjoyment.

Parents should know that there is some mild fantasy peril and mayhem, some bullying, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Why are the girls at school so mean to Emily Elizabeth? What makes them change? Would you like to have Clifford as a pet? How would you take care of him?

If you like this, try: the books and the animated feature film, “Clifford’s Really Big Movie

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The French Dispatch

Posted on October 20, 2021 at 10:00 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, graphic nudity, and some sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including kidnapping of a child and a shoot-out, student uprising
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright 2021 Searchlight
The dictionary has two conflicting definitions for the word “precious,” and both apply to writer/director Wes Anderson’s films as a group and to his latest, “The French Dispatch” especially. “Precious” can mean very valuable or important, deserving of being carefully preserved. And it can also mean excessively refined or affected. If you are an Anderson fan, you will be glad to hear this is the Wes Anderson-iest Wes Anderson film so far. If you are not, well, you’ve been warned.

Anderson’s exquisitely assembled films are more Cornell Box or M.C. Escher puzzle than narrative, the props and settings more important than the characters or storyline. I enjoy the attention to detail and the whimsy of his films, occasionally spiced with moments of, sorry, il faut parler français por un instant, “choquer le bourgeois.” I love his repertory cast of actors, who are always clearly having a blast and not quite winking at the audience. But I also find them claustrophobic, and overly precious in both senses of the word, speaking to those who feel smug about understanding them in a way they believe ordinary, less sophisticated people can not. Like that French I used just now, which by the way means: “it is necessary to speak French for a minute to ‘shock the ordinary people.'” See? It works just fine en englais. Anderson seems to aim for whimsy but one thing whimsy cannot be is heavy-handed.

Anderson has found the idea subject for “The French Dispatch,” a real-life publication almost as precious (still in both senses of the word) as his fantasized characters and environments, The New Yorker, and in particular the New Yorker of the romanticized era of the mid-20th century. There is a long list of New Yorker writers and editors who are listed in the end credits, including the two legendary editors, co-founder and editor from 1925-1951 Harold Ross and William Shawn, editor from 1952-1987 (and father of writer/actor Wallace Shawn).

The film is both an anthology and a retrospective, again Anderson’s preferred matryoshka Russian nesting doll narrative structure. Is with the death of the title publication’s founder and editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), a “Citizen Kane” style set-up that continues with peeks inside some of the magazine’s classic stories, delivered as chapters. The setting is the fictional French town of “Ennui-sur-Blasé” (ennui and blasé both French words adopted by English speakers meaning world-weary and bored). The premise is a look inside an issue of the magazine, which, following the orders of its founder, will cease publication after his death. In another layer of matryoskha, The New Yorker reported that the parallels between its real-life articles and the film include: Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), inspired by writer Joseph Mitchell. Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), inspired by Lord Duveen, the subject of a 1951 six-part New Yorker profile by S. N. Behrman. Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), inspired by James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling. Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), inspired by Mavis Gallant, who wrote a two-part 1968 piece on the student uprisings in France.

There are stories within stories as we see the writers discuss what they have written. J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, fabulously, of course) delivers a lecture to an audience with slides showing the work of an acclaimed artist (Benecio del Toro) who happens to be criminally insane and confined to prison, where his muse and nude model is one of the guards (Léa Seydoux). Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) is a steely observer of student unrest who gets involved with one of the young leaders (Timothée Chalamet). The strongest of the stories has Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, who can perfectly recall every word he has written and is invited by a television interviewer (Liev Schreiber) to recite from memory his very convoluted story about the kidnapping of young boy. Wright’s melodious, slightly husky voice in Anderson’s near-monotone style set opposite a story of grotesque twists and turns tilts toward precious in the second sense of the word, but the sheer charisma of the design, with Anderson’s signature dollhouse-style cutaways, has some of the first meaning of the word as well.

Parents should know that this film has sexual references and non-explicit situations, some strong language, and some peril and violence, including a kidnapping, poison, and a shoot-out with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Which of the stories did you like best?

If you like this, try: “The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Royal Tennenbaums,” and the books about the New Yorker by James Thurber and Brendan Gill

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Free Guy

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 12:05 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Language|Crude/Suggestive References|Strong Fantasy Violence)
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video-game violence with powerful real and fantasy weapons, guns, chases, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 12, 2021

Copyright 20th Century Studios 2021
In 1966, Tom Stoppard gave us “Hamlet” from the perspective of two of its most minor characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” a meditation on the impossibility of understanding the sometimes random, sometimes malicious forces of life, not as grim as it sounds. In “The Lion King 1 1/2,” Disney gave us the same story as the original “Lion King” but from the perspective of two of the main character’s sidekicks, the wart hog and the meerkat. The theme is basically building on a popular franchise, but it does expand on the story. In “Free Guy,” this idea goes further by giving a video game’s NPC (non-playable character) who is so generic his name is Guy (Ryan Reynolds) agency and that most human of gifts, the chance to grow and learn and love. Reynolds, who also produced, is never less than terrific here in a role ideally suited for his gifts. It’s easy to forget how subtle an actor he is, even in wild comedies like “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and larger than life roles like “Deadpool.” At each stage, from a one-note character barely more than some code and pixels to the first suggestions of mingled longing triumphing over fear, he calibrates with exquisite precision exactly where these nascent emotions and increasing confidence are progressing.

Guy is blissfully ignorant that his only purpose in the digital world of Free City is to hit the floor when the bank robbers, avatars of the real-world players, break in and start shooting. (Listen carefully to the robbers’ voices for some surprise appearances.) He wakes up so happy every morning we almost expect him to start singing “Everything is Awesome,” like Chris Pratt in “The LEGO Movie.” He is happy because he does not know there is another way to be. He gets up. He has some cereal and feeds his goldfish. He selects one of the identical blue button-down shirts and khaki slacks from his closet. He stops at a local cafe to get coffee. He goes to work as a bank teller, with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howrey), a security guard, and then the next group of robbers break in.

And then, one day, he sees The Girl (Jodie Comer of “Killing Eve”). She Molotov Girl, is the avatar for Millie, a gamer and programmer whose goal in the game is not racking up points, which players get from robbing and killing people. She is looking for proof that Antwan (Taika Waititi, having fun as a temperamental tyrant) the head of the computer game company cheekily called Soonami, stole the code she developed for a different game with Keys (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things,” very appealing), her former business partner. Keys now works for Soonami, with his friend and sometimes competitor Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

The avatars in the game, representing the real-life players, wear sunglasses. Guy puts on a pair and for the first time sees what the players see, a Pokemon Go-style assortment of goals and prizes and attributes. Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) has a lot of fun going back and forth between the world inside the game and the real world of Soonami, Keys, and Millie, plus some glimpses of the players behind their vastly more badass avatars. Gamers will find a lot of clever references to their world, especially the creation of a new character near the end who looks very familiar but is not fully programmed. And anyone who’s been to a blockbuster in the past few years will enjoy some surprise cameos. “Don’t have a good day; have a GREAT day.” This movie is smarter than it needs to be, and it is very satisfying to see Guy confront existential questions and discover, as lucky humans do, that it is love and helping others that makes life meaningful. It may start with as small a step as a Henley shirt or a cappuccino. All it takes is wanting more.

Parents should know that this film includes extended video-game action and violence with many real and fantasy weapons, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Which game would you prefer? What kind of game would you create?

If you like this, try: “Ready Player One,” “Jumanji” and “The LEGO Movie”

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