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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Belfast

Posted on November 11, 2021 at 5:53 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-3 for strong language and some violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, mobs, sad death of a family member
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 28, 2022
Copyright 2021 Focus

“Buddy! Buddy!” A boy is outside playing with his friends when he hears his mother is calling him home for dinner. He does not think anything of it except perhaps that it’s too bad the game has to stop or that he is hungry, but it is the kind of moment he will look back on as an adult as a moment of perfect safety and comfort, a time of feeling completely at home, supported by the family and the community, a feeling that the world makes sense. It is the kind of memory we come back to when we miss those feelings very much.

Sir Kenneth Branagh came back to those last golden moments of childhood, as many people did, during the Great Pause of the pandemic, when so many of us, even well past childhood, felt a new sense of uncertainty. And so he wrote and directed “Belfast,” based on those moments in his own life, when he was nine, and began to understand for the first time that the world can be a dangerous place.

He hears “Buddy! BUDDY!!” again, but this is not a “come home, where dinner is ready invitation from his mother. This is a sound of pure terror. Nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) lives on what was once a peaceful street in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but it has. become a center for unrest and violence due to The Troubles, the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants.

Branagh skillfully shows us the world through Buddy’s eyes, though we understand more than he does. Sometimes that is amusing. Sometimes it is heart-wrenching. Buddy’s parents are almost impossibly glamorous and beautiful, as we see through his idealized perspective, and because they are played by the gorgeous (and Irish) Jamie Dornan (Pa) and Caitriona Baize (Ma). Also in the family are grandparents played with asperity and a twinkle in the eye by Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds.

Gorgeous black and white cinematography gives the film the quality of a timeless memory and there are flashes of color when the family sees some Hollywood movies like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Another film we get a glimpse of is more to the point, “High Noon.” Buddy’s family loves their home. But The Troubles are forcing everyone to take sides. Pa, whose travel for business has added to the strain has been offered a much better-paying job in England.

Branagh expertly mingles humor and drama, shooting us what Buddy sees but does not fully understand and the way that he gives equal curiosity and weight to all of the new information he is learning and all of the new emotions that he is feeling, including some romantic sentiments about a pretty classmate. The very gifted Hill conveys the purity of these first-time experiences with great simplicity and open-heartedness. Buddy’s story (and Branagh’s) is of a very specific place and time but the bittersweet end of childhood and beginning of deeper understandings is universal and told here with tenderness and compassion.

Parents should know that this movie includes scenes of mob violence with peril and injuries and the very sad death of a family member. Characters drink and smoke and use strong language.

Family discussion: Did the family make the right decision? If you made a movie about your childhood, what story would you tell?

If you like this, try: “The Journey,” about the two men who negotiated a resolution of The Troubles and “The Commitments,” about young Irish musicians forming a music group

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The Water Man

Posted on May 6, 2021 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, scary images, peril and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, references to child abuse and neglect, critical illness of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 8, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
“The Water Man” is a rare film that exquisitely captures the liminal moment at the end of childhood when we are old enough to begin to understand some of the complications and unsolvable problems of life but still young enough to believe in magic. Lonnie Chavis (“Magic Camp,” “This is Us”) plays 11-year-old Gunner, who is very close to his loving mother (Rosario Dawson) but not aware enough to realize that she is very sick. He is creating a graphic novel about a detective who must solve his own murder and he is fascinated with clues and deductions, but cannot recognize what is heartbreakingly clear to us as we see an IV stand in the bedroom and suspect that the colorful turbans hide a bald head.

Gunner is less close to his father Amos, played by director David Oyelowo, a military officer just returned from a long detail in Japan. His mother loves his art; his father wants him to toss a football.

When he realizes how sick his mother is, Gunner is determined to save her by tracking down a mythic creature known as The Water Man, said to have eternal life. A slightly older girl named Jo (Amiah Miller of “War for the Planet of the Apes”) tells stories of The Water Man, pointing to a scar on her neck as proof that she has not just seen him but been close enough for him to wound her. Gunner does not realize, as we do, that Jo, who lives in a tent by herself, is not as confident and independent as she seems. He agrees to pay her to take him to The Water Man, who is thought to live deep in the forest.

Like the Halloween scene in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this film lives in the perspective of a young character, while allowing us to understand more than he does. Oyelowo and his Director of Cinematography, Matthew J. Lloyd, use color to tell what Oyelowo describes as an “elemental” story. Gunner’s mother is swathed in warm yellows and oranges, echoed in the backpack Gunner carries on his quest. The inside of Jo’s tent is a deep red. The forest is lush green, but the colors get less saturated and more muted as he gets further from home.

The young actors are both exceptional, very natural and believable, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. But there is also strong support from an outstanding cast that includes Alfred Molina as an adult who has spent years looking for The Water Man and Maria Bello as the local sheriff who helps Amos try to find his son. Oyelowo is clearly inspired by “ET” (note Gunner’s ET lunchbox), and does a good job of creating a sense of wonder and showing us how all of us, at any age, can struggle to adapt to the unacceptable. Being present for those we love, the families we create, learning to love others for who they are instead of who we want them to be, all come together in a scene as warm as the sun-colors that surround Gunner’s mother.

Parents should know that this film concerns the critical illness of a parent. There is some peril and a creepy fantasy character along with some jump-out-at-you surprises, some schoolyard language, and shoplifting, and there are references to child abuse and neglect.

Family discussion: What are some of the myths or folklore of your community? Where do these stories come from?

If you like this, try: “Bridge to Terabithia,” “Time Bandits,” “Finding ‘Ohana,” and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”

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