When You Finish Saving the World

Posted on January 19, 2023 at 6:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine, teenage drug use
Violence/ Scariness: References to domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 20, 2023

Credit: Beth Garrabrant Copyright 2022 !24
Jesse Eisenberg’s first feature film as writer and director is reminiscent of his breakthrough performance in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” They are both stories of teenagers beginning to understand themselves and their parents a little better through some of the inevitable painful discoveries of adolescence.

“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard plays Ziggy, a high school student who is very proud of the 20 thousand fans worldwide who tune in to hear his weekly live streaming performances. He sings original songs he describes as “folk rock with alternative influences” and thanks them for their comments and tips in their native languages.

Ziggy lives with his parents, the reserved, bookish Roger (Jay O. Sanders) and the slightly formal and sardonic Grace (Julianne Moore), director of a shelter for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse.

Both Ziggy and Grace make efforts to connect to new people. Abused wife Angie (Eleonore Hendricks, creating a character of great specificity and depth in her brief scenes) and her teenage son Kyle (Billy Bryk) arrive at the shelter after police intervention, and Grace is touched by Kyle’s empathy and support for his mother. She becomes over-involved in trying to help him, perhaps displacing her feelings out of frustration with Ziggy. When she brings him on errands and sees him warmly speaking Spanish with one of the shelter’s former residents, she abruptly insists on leaving. She encourages Kyle to apply to college, which makes Angie feel threatened.

And Ziggy is drawn to a girl at school. Her name is Lila (a wonderfully charismatic Alisha Boe). He awkwardly tries to impress her with his live streaming success, but sees that what she cares about is activism on behalf of social justice and the environment. He has no idea how to approach her, and his awkward attempts will be painfully familiar to anyone who has survived adolescence.

There are three kind of music in the film, perhaps three and a half. The first is the light, electronic tune played for us in the audience to establish the tone. The rest are diegetic, the music played and listened to by the characters. Grace favors classical music which she plays in the car. She listens to Bizet’s “Carmen” when she drives Ziggy to school, refusing when he asks her to play anything else. Ziggy plays his original songs on an acoustic guitar, at first about his feelings but then, as he using Lila’s poem about colonialism and exploitation of the Marshall Islands for lyrics.

Eisenberg’s screenplay, based on his Audible book, is thoughtful with an actor’s sensitivity to tone and character, with impeccable casting choices. He knows that he can tell us as much by having Ziggy and Kyle pass each other at school or by the Ziggy he walks down the same sidewalk at different times in the story as he does with Ziggy’s painfully awkward attempts to tell Lila how “lit” and “terra” she is. Moore, as Grace finally watching Ziggy’s songs on YouTube, gives another of her gorgeous performances, with so much going on underneath Grace’s air of righteousness, a sense of loss of the closeness she had to Ziggy as a child, exhaustion over the overwhelming difficulties of the people at the shelter. Some parts of the story do not quite work, but the details are thoroughly imagined and the performances are thoughtful and involving.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, wine, and teen drug use, with references to domestic abuse.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Grace want to listen to Ziggy’s music and what changed her mind? Why didn’t Grace tell the truth about helping Kyle? Why did Ziggy go to the shelter? What should he have said to Lila?

If you like this, try: “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Edge of Seventeen”

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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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Catherine Called Birdy

Posted on September 22, 2022 at 5:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence, discussions of forced marriage, references to battles, stillbirth, offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2022

Copyright 2022 Amazon
Lena Dunham is a remarkably talented writer and director and this loving, joyous adaptation of YA favorite novel Catherine Called Birdy is a passion project for her, as we can seen from her affectionate portrayal of a rebellious girl in the Middle Ages. Before I get to the details of the story, I want to take a moment to note Dunham’s exceptional talent in casting. One of the palpable pleasures of this film worth noting is the superb selection of performers. Even the smallest role is cast with care and beautifully performed. High marks to Dunham and to her casting directors Catriona Dickie and Nina Gold.

“Games of Thrones” actress Bella Ramsey is ideal as the title character, the 14-year-old daughter of a feckless nobleman (Andrew. Scott as Lord Rollo) and his kind-hearted wife (Billie Piper as Lady Aislinn). We are introduced to the family and household with brief written descriptions, video game style. They include Birdy’s nurse and confidant, Morwenna (Lesley Sharp), her brothers, one a monk she likes and one living in the castle with her she mostly ignores. Her friends are Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), who cares for the pigs, and another noble teenager, the beautiful Alis (Isis Hainsworth), who comes to visit once a month with her parents. She also adores her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), who comes for a visit after fighting in the Crusades.

Birdy (nickname from the pigeons she keeps) is a fierce, independent young woman who describes her “lady lessons” as my two least favorite words in one terrible phrase.” She feels unfairly constricted by the norms of her time, and has a long lost of activities unfairly forbidden to women. She is mostly ignored by her father, until he is informed that (1) he is in need of money and (2) the primary asset he can use to get money is his marriageable daughter. In the calculations of the time. a young woman who carries a title is equivalent to a wealthy man without one. As soon as her father finds out that she has begun to menstruate and is therefore ready to bear children, he sends out word that she is ready to be sold into matrimony. She has a series of amusing encounters as she scares off would-be suitors. Finally, though, after Alis is “married” to a nine-year-old, Birdy is promised to the worst of them all.

Dunham gives us a Middle Ages compound that is suitably grimy, with evocative production design by Kave Quinn and costumes from Julian Day and a score from Carter Burwell. But the modern sensibility is evident through contemporary songs on the soundtrack and Birdy’s commentary. She may be ignorant about some of the basic facts of life, but the more interesting knowledge she gains over the course of the film concerns her increased understanding of people and their motivations.

Dunham, like the book’s author Karen Cushman, effectively uses the Middle Ages setting to raise not just contemporary but eternal issues of conflicts between independence and connections of our friends and family, between challenging traditions and allowing them to provide continuity. The humor and pop songs keep the more dire aspects of the story from distracting us when what she wants us to see is Birdy’s resilience and open-heartedness.

Parents should know that this film is frank about puberty and has sexual references and childbirth scenes, including a sad stillbirth. There is off-screen violence, with references to the Crusades and the death of a child, and a sword fight with one participant wounded.

Family discussion: Why did Birdy and Alis have different ideas about how to behave? Why didn’t she agree to go with Ethelfritha? The screenwriter changed the ending from the book. Which ending do you prefer?

If you like this, try: the book and the book series by Tamora Pierce

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Belle (2022)

Posted on January 13, 2022 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, language, brief suggestive material, violence
Profanity: Rude language, bullies
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of parents, child abuse, peril, scary monster
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 14, 2022

Copyright GKIDS 2021
“Belle” is a spectacularly beautiful animated film from Japan (opening theatrically in both Japanese and English versions) with dazzling images out of a classic fairy tale but a storyline that could not be more contemporary.

The film begins with a commercial for “the ultimate online community” called silly U, with more than five billion participants. It is an online “sandbox”-style game where participants has an avatar based on their own biometric data. They have endless freedom to create the world as they want it to be. It sells itself both as “another reality” where, unlike this reality, you can have a second chance and start a new life and as a place where you can be yourself in a way that the trivialities of real life like the way you look do not allow.

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura in the original Japanese cast, Kylie McNeill in the English language version) is a sad, shy, lonely teenager living in rural Japan. She is still mourning the death of her mother, who lost her life saving a drowning child as then-six-year-old Suzu watched in horror, and she feels abandoned. “Why was a stranger’s life more important than being with me?” she sill asks. Her father is remote and the only person she has to talk to is her tech-savvy friend, Ruka (Tina Tamashiro/Hunter Schafer). In these early scenes, her face is almost always obscured. We see her from the back or she puts her head down so her hair hides her face. When her classmates invite her to sing karaoke at a party she runs out of the room, sick to her stomach.

But the avatar she creates on U is another story. At first, she hesitantly types in her real name, but then erases it and creates a glamorous pop star with flowing pink hair named Bell. (Suzu keys it in with just four letters but the fans add an “e” at the end, inspired by the French word for “beautiful.”) Within days, she has millions of followers. She also has millions of critics. Ruka tries to reassure her: “Stardom is built on a mixed reception.” In real life, we see Suzu smile for the first time. Belle becomes a worldwide sensation, disconcerting the previous U world favorite.

And then, as millions are assembled for a virtual concert, it is disrupted by a dragon monster. The rest of the story is inspired in part by “Beauty and the Beast” as Suzu/Belle tries to find out who the beast really is and what he wants.

The screenplay takes a nuanced approach to the virtual world, wisely recognizing that it is just a projection of the real world, sometimes a distorted one, but one that can serve as training wheels, a Rorschach test, a beta test, or even a place to find answers not available anywhere else. Belle is Suzu, after all, and the more she performs as Belle, the more she discovers her own confidence. Finally, when she understands for the first time how her mother could take a risk to save another life, she learns that helping others is a way to find agency, connection, and purpose.

All of this takes place in a gorgeously imagined world so inviting and full of delight we almost wish for a U app on our phones. “Belle” is a touching story that is both timely and timeless.

Parents should know that there are sad parental deaths, domestic abuse issues, some harsh schoolyard insults, and some mild boy-girl interactions.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Ready Player One” and another re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast, “Beastly”

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The Tender Bar

Posted on December 16, 2021 at 3:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of alcohol, scenes in a bar, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021
Copyright Amazon Studios 2021

JR Moehringer’s bittersweet memoir has been turned into a tender movie by director George Clooney. Moehringer wrote about growing up with his single mother in a ramshackle house with a mostly loving but dysfunctional extended family, learning his most important lessons about life and manhood from his bartender uncle Charlie and the regulars at the Long Island bar, improbably named after Charles Dickens.

Ben Affleck reminds us of how good he can be with a subtle, understated performance as Uncle Charlie that conveys a great deal about the character with honestly and understanding. JR (played as a child by Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (a terrific Lily Rabe) drive up to her parents home with a sense of resignation, if not defeat. She and her siblings cannot seem to get away from the house where they grew up. JR’s dad is a radio announcer and disc jockey. He has no contact with his former wife and son and JR thinks of him as just a voice.

JR’s grandfather is grumpy and often harsh. Uncle Charlie has his own issues, but he is there for JR, encouraging in their conversations and giving him an example of a man who can be relied on. His scenes are by far the highlight of the film, which goes astray after JR achieves his mother’s most important goal and is admitted to Yale. The movie spends too much time on his first romance, which like many first heartbreaks, is not as life-defining as JR (both the character and the writer) think it is.

Affleck shines here, perhaps because he does not have to be a leading man who carries the film or his comfort in being directed by his friend George Clooney, perhaps because his best scenes are with a child, and, like his character, we can see how much of what he does is in support of his young scene partner. Clooney skillfully creates JR’s world so that we can see it as adults and also understand how the young JR sees it as well. Like the bar of the title, the film is an oasis of honesty and kindness.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and some crude sexual references and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: What were the most important lessons JR learned from his uncle? Who are your biggest influences outside your immediate family?

If you like this, try: the book and Mary Carr’s The Liar’s Club and the Diane Keaton-directed “Unstrung Heroes.”

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