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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Spin Me Round

Posted on August 18, 2022 at 5:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, characters injured, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 19, 2022

Copyright 2022 IFC Films
Director Jeff Baena is developing something of a repertory company and something of a genre all his own that could be called “high concept deranged farce.” He co-wrote one of my favorite films, “I Heart Huckabee’s,” a story about a department store, some environmental activists, complex existential philosophical concepts that was hilarious and bracingly smart. In his other films, wild, out of control behavior occurs in a medieval convent populated by highly impious foul-mouthed nuns (“The Little Hours”) and a dead girlfriend returns as a zombie (“Life After Beth”). Actors who have appeared in two or more of his films include his wife, Aubrey Plaza, and Alison Brie (her husband, Dave Franco appeared in “The Little Hours”), and “SNL” veterans Molly Shannon and Fred Armison. All of them are brilliant at exactly the combination of heightened circumstance and deadpan delivery he specializes in, and all of them clearly enjoy it.

His latest film, “Spin Me Round” does not just star Alison Brie; she wrote it as well. She plays Amber, who has worked for nine years at an Italian Garden-style restaurant in Bakersfield, California, called Tuscan Grove. As the movie opens, we see the industrial operations of the restaurant chain, with Alfredo sauce squeezed out of pre-packaged bags onto microwaved all-you-can-eat pasta. Amber is very professional and respected by her colleagues. Her boss, played by Lil Rel Howery, has a surprise for her; he has submitted her name for a special study session in Tuscany sponsored by their parent company. and she has been selected. Amber is thrilled. She has never been to Europe and it looks like a fabulous adventure, and, maybe, with the possibility of romance.

But this is one of those stories that starts out like a Hallmark movie and turns into a Lifetime movie.

Amber is still in “please the customer” mode and determined to bring the same upbeat, can-do spirit that made her successful at the restaurant. So when things begin to go wrong after her arrival she is sunny and helpful. Another attendee is Deb (Shannon), pouting over a lost bag, and Amber offers to loan her anything she needs, modestly assuring Deb, “I overpacked.” It turns out they are not staying in the beautiful villa pictured on the website but in a generic little motel with no locks on the doors nearby. When asked to turn over their passports and stay within the compound, she agrees. The promised lessons on Italian culture and cuisine are dull and basic. One of the other attendees is an ambitious chef (Tim Heidecker) who wants to teach the others about haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy, but no one cares.

The founder of the Tuscan Grove is Nick (Alessandro Nivola, always great), a dissolute yacht-owning zillionaire with surface charm and, clear to us at least, no interest in anything but pleasure. His assistant, Cat (Plaza) wakes Amber up and takes her to Nick’s yacht. While the others are in a boring class about herbs, she is living a Cinderella dream.

But then things start to get weird. Some of the other participants disappear. Amber starts to investigate and the storyline and tone take a swerve.

The last 20 minutes and he ending do not make a lot of sense. It’s pretty random. The script may be more a role Brie wants to play than a story she wants to tell. But the performances are excellent, especially Shannon, Plaza, and Brie herself, all precise and consistent despite the shifts. Shannon is funny and scary as the volatile over-sharer, both with confidences and with Amber’s clothes. Plaza, as always, is a master of deadpan with an underlay of recklessness. She and Brie play off each other beautifully as Amber tries hard to be a “good girl” and is scared and a little thrilled at finding her tendency to go along leading her to cross some boundaries she would never have considered in Bakersfield. I hope Baena keeps this repertory company going.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit sexual situations and nudity, including group sex, and very strong language. Characters drink alcohol. There is some peril and there are some graphic and disturbing images of injuries.

Family discussion: Is there a point where Amber should have asked more questions? Why was the kind of restaurant so important to the story?

If you like this, try: Baena’s other films

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Not Okay

Posted on July 27, 2022 at 5:54 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Pervasive references to violence including terrorism and mass shootings
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 29, 2022

Copyright 2022 Searchlight Pictures
The trigger warning cautions us that this film included flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikeable female protagonist. They’re not kidding. The endlessly likable Zoey Deutch plays Danni and we are shown from the very first minute, a close-up of Danni’s splotchy, teary face, where this is going. Like Danni herself, Deutch deploys her weapons-grade charm to get what she wants. Danni wants to be a social media star. Deutch wants us to see exactly how empty Danni is, how her insecurity has made her more ruthless than she allows herself to see. It’s an excellent performance.

But the character and the script are still too thinly written to sustain an almost-two-hour film, especially one that tells us up front how it is going to end. And it is a story we know already because we live in the world of social media and cancel culture. You’ve heard the expression “live by the sword, die by the sword?” That could have been coined to describe the 21st century world of social media. Have you ever heard of the Milkshake Duck? It’s a description of the lightning-fast online progression from irresistible viral sensation to controversy to catastrophe to canceled.

And yet, like Danni, too many of us still measure ourselves in likes and clicks. Danni explains, “Have you every wanted to be noticed so badly you didn’t care what it was for?” She says she wants to be seen, wants to be important, wants to have some purpose, to matter.

It turns out, she doesn’t really want to be seen. She wants to be seen AS — seen as popular, seen as successful. But not as herself, awkward, insecure, needy. She does not understand that she will be more invisible seen as something other than her real self than she was when she was an overlooked, low-level photo editor and aspiring writer.

And so, she pretends she has been accepted at a writers retreat program in Paris. She takes a few days off from work and fakes a bunch of pictures that make it look like she’s wearing a beret, visiting the Arc de Triomphe, and enjoying a croissant. It works! Lots of clicks and followers! Then she wakes up to discover that there has been a terrorist attack in Paris, at a location she had pretended to visit and everyone thinks she was there. She leans into it, accepting sympathy, writing an article about surviving trauma and encouraging others to use the hashtag #iamnotokay.

She joins a support group for people who have experienced extreme violence. She is disengaged until she realizes one of the members of the group is a young survivor of a school shooting named Rowan (Mia Isaac) who has an impressive social media profile. Danni befriends Rowan to escalate her own profile. But she discovers that some people are not who they pretend to be online. Some are even more authentic and sincere, and Rowen, an activist and poet, is completely genuine, so much so that she assumes Danni must be, too.

This seems to be the year of the fake-it-until-you-make it stories, from fake heiress Anna Delvey and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes to WeWork’s Adam Newmann and Uber’s Travis Kalanick. Danni is not based on a real person but she is based on a real phenomenon. But the characters here are just as superficially drawn as the presentational duckface posers on Instagram and TikTok. We do not have to like a character for a movie to be successful, or for the character to have a happy ending, but we do have to see a complete character and here Danni is just an idea.

Parents should know that this film deals with trauma from terrorism and mass shootings. Characters use strong language, drink alcohol and use marijuana, and have unprotected sex in an explicit scene (no nudity).

Family discussion: Who do you follow online and why? How are you different from your online persona?

If you like this, try: “Disconnect” and “The American Meme”

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Where the Crawdads Sing

Posted on July 14, 2022 at 5:25 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material, and smoking.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, attempted rape, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 15, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 12, 2022

Copyright 2022 Sony Pictures
I have to begin by apologizing to the vast group of readers who adore the book, Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, a record-breaking publishing phenomenon that remains on the best-seller list four years after it was released. Those fans are hoping the film will deliver the essential elements of the book, the lyrical narration, supplemented with exquisitely filmed images of the natural world so beloved by the main character, and a diligent presentation of the storyline as it appears in the book, and it is fair to say that it does. The cinematography by Polly Morgan is exquisite and the song by Taylor Swift is evocative and haunting. But viewed entirely as a film, the translation to the screen does not work, and those who do not already have a strong emotional commitment to the story are likely to come away finding the film superficial at best and morally bankrupt at worst. While some of the book’s more troubling portrayals of race and class have been softened for the film, the characters and storyline are thinly conceived and it relies much too heavily on Owens’ poetic descriptions of the science she knows well. This is her first novel but she has had decades of experience as a zoologist and conservationist. The works better on paper, when the reader can fill in the blanks, than in a film, which cannot help but be more literal. The actors, production and costume designers, composer, and cinematographer can only try their best to create the same magic.

The book is a fantasy along the lines of Green Mansions or Tarzan, or Blue Lagoon or The Jungle Book, where beautiful children and young people live in nature, free from the corruption of the so-called civilized world.

Kya lives in a remote cabin in the marshes of North Carolina. Her father was drunk and abusive, and so her mother left, and then her older sisters, then her brother. Her father briefly cared for her, giving her his old army pouch to collect the shells and plants she was observing so closely, but then he left, too, and she was alone.

She supports herself by collecting mussels and selling them to the local store, run by a kindly couple. She leaves school after one day because the other children make fun of her and call her “marsh girl.” And she grows up to be movie-star gorgeous (Daisy Edgar-Jones of “Under the Banner of Heaven”) with shiny hair, robust health, and perfect teeth. She is befriended by a gentle boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith), who also lives on the marsh and loves the natural world. He teaches her to read and promises he will not desert her when he goes to college. But he does.

And then a young man from the town, romances her. His name is Chase (Harris Dickinson), and he, too makes promises. She is not sure how she feels about him but she is tired of being alone. HINT (this movie is not subtle): one of these young men supports her passion for drawing and writing about the nature around her and the other, when she sends her work to the publishers, the first one suggested and one accepts with enthusiasm, tells her not to get a big head about it. One is scrupulous about consent, one is not. Hmmm.

Kya’s knowledge of the world is very limited except when it is not. Never having seen a painting or illustration, she somehow creates exquisite drawings of plants and insects with an apparently endless supply of watercolor paints left behind by her mother. She is shy except when she isn’t.

As the movie begins, in 1969, Chase is dead. Kya is arrested for murder, based on circumstantial evidence and the town’s contempt for “marsh girl.” Her backstory is interlaced with the trial. I will not spoil the outcome, which is revealed earlier in the book than in the movie, except to say the coda at the end is both preposterous and, in my view, undermines everything that has gone before.

Parents should know that this has strong material for a PG-13 including explicit sexual situations, attempted rape, domestic abuse, alcoholism, abandonment, and murder. Characters use strong language and drink alcohol and get drunk.

Family discussion: What can you observe in the nature around you? Why did Tom Milton defend Kya? How did Tate feel about his discovery?

If you like this, try: “Green Mansions” and “The Jungle Book” and the book by Owens

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Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Posted on July 14, 2022 at 3:20 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol and tipsiness
Violence/ Scariness: References to wartime deaths and injuries
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: July 14, 2022

Copyright 2022 FOCUS
“To be possessed is an admirable reason for possessing,” wrote Dorothy L. Sayers. Blaise Pascal said, “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” Those who are lucky enough to want some special object not for prestige but purely for love and a deep connection to the item’s artistry or history will understand the story of a shy Cockney woman who develops a passion for an haute couture dress.

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is a sweet Cinderella story about a cleaning lady who dreams of a Dior gown. It is based on the book by Paul Gallico, an author who was determined to work in a variety of genres, and so films based on his work include the classic disaster film “The Poseidon Adventure,” the charming fantasy musical “Lili,” and an earlier version of this story starring Angela Lansbury, Omar Sharif, and Diana Rigg. (NOTE: the original book and the first movie are called “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris,” to reflect the dropped h’s of the Cockney accent.)

It is set in post-WWII London. Mrs. Harris (exquisitely played by Lesley Manville) and her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) are close friends who spend their days cleaning up the careless messes of people who have enough money to be careless. Through them, Mrs. Harris glimpses lives bigger and more colorful than her own. One of her clients is Lady Dent, who somehow never seems to have the cash on hand to pay her (Anna Chancellor, “Duckface” from “Four Weddings and a Funeral”). There is also is a high-strung aspiring actress, and a rakish, derby-hatted bachelor (played with a cheeky wink by Christian McKay) who has an endless stream of “nieces” leaving in the morning wearing their dresses from the evening before.

Mrs. Harris still has a small unopened package sent to her by her husband when he was in the military in WWII, the last communication she received from him. It is now more than 10 years later and she has not been able to bring herself to open it. Finally, she does and sees what she did not want to see before. He was killed in action. It is not a coincidence that this happens just as she becomes mesmerized by an haute couture gown Lady Dent has bought for 500 pounds (about $15,000 in today’s dollars). It is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen and she decides she must get one for herself.

She assembles 500 pounds through scrimping, doing extra work, including “invisible repairs” sewing, and an assortment of unexpected windfalls. She has just enough for a one-day trip to Paris to get the gown. But once she gets there she learns first that their haughty director (Isabelle Huppert) does not want a shabby little Englishwoman anywhere near their brand and their other customers, and second, even if she is able to purchase a gown it will be made to order for her and require two weeks of fittings. And so, her adventures in Paris begin. (NOTE: Dior participated in helping to re-create some of their stunning fashions.)

It is not just her mending that is invisible. Mrs. Harris herself begins to learn that she has felt invisible, not worthy of being seen. Like the contents of the package, Mrs. Harris has been hidden and enclosed for a long time. Acknowledging her yearning and insisting that she deserves to own an item of beauty and artistry helps her locate a new openness to others and determination on other issues. At first, she relates to her new acquaintances with what she knows, cleaning and cooking. But she discovers through their responses to her that she has more to contribute.

Manville is a perfect choice for this role (and for pretty much any other, too — see her Mike Leigh performances and her appearance in a very different haute couture film, “The Phantom Thread”). While Mrs. Harris may not always see herself that way, Manville shows us in every moment that the character’s discovery of her courage and value is as much a work of art as the meticulously constructed gowns of Dior.

Parents should know that this film has mild rude humor and references to wartime injuries and death.

Family discussion: Have you ever wanted something the way Mrs. Harris wants the gown? Why was it so important to her? How did her experiences in Paris change the way she saw herself? How to the references to Sartre‘s existentialism relate to her story? Did you notice the “zoom dolly” shots made famous by Stephen Spielberg in “Jaws?” What do they tell us?

If you like this, try: the earlier version with Angela Lansbury and Gallico’s books, including The Snow Goose, and look up some of Dior’s classic designs

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