The Aeronauts

Posted on December 5, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril, character sacrifices himself to save another
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (though the real-life character played by Felicity Jones was male)
Date Released to Theaters: December 6, 2019
Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios

Science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” “The Aeronauts,” based on the true story of early adventurers in meteorology and flight, exists at exactly that point in the middle. The “Theory of Everything” stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne play balloon pilot Amelia Wren and scientist James Glaisher, and for most of the movie they are up in the sky, marveling at sights and atmospheric conditions no humans have ever experienced before — or trying to survive them.

When they are in the air, it is gorgeous, exciting, and great fun. The visuals are spectacular, and sound designer Andy Kennedy and his team get a special shout-out for the superb audio effects, the exquisite silence, the creaking of the balloon basket, the clinks of the instrumentation. The never-ending series of life-or-death challenges are staged with such urgent vitality we almost feel that we are in the basket with them.

For most of the scenes on the ground, including a number of flashbacks, well, the screenplay never quite slips the surly bonds of earth. It is much better when they are up in the sky, battling the elements.

Wren and her husband piloted balloons until he was killed on one of their flights. Glaisher was a scientist who insisted that weather could be predicted with the help of meteorological data, despite the scorn of the scientific community and lack of support from his father, who is struggling with dementia. Glaisher is finally able to get the money for the balloon and persuades Wren to be the pilot.

Wren is highly theatrical, and Jones is utterly captivating in an early scene as she plays to the crowd, as savvy about showmanship as she is about flying. It is a lot of fun to see the actress who has often been given more subdued or internal characters do everything  — even cartwheels — to charm the crowd. She may appear to be light-hearted and flamboyant, but it is all precisely orchestrated and calculated. She knows what it takes to get the balloon in the air is not just the equipment and fuel but the other fuel, money.

Redmayne’s character is more like the shy, bookish type we’ve seen him play before. But it is fun to see his growing appreciation for both Wren and the adventure.

Those of us who pull down the shade on our airplane windows so we can watch movies on our laptops should take a moment to look outside and imagine what it was like to be the first human beings who saw — and heard — the inside of a cloud. “The Aeronauts” is best at conveying the thrill of that discovery, or, rather, series of discoveries, and the courage and ingenuity that went into getting up there and getting back down as close to safely as possible. It should inspire the audience not just to look out at the clouds but to dream of their own adventures.

NOTE: Rolling Stone did a fact-check to compare the movie to the real story.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril with a lot of suspense and some disturbing images. A character sacrifices his life to save someone else.

Family discussion: Why did Amelia change her mind about taking James up in the balloon? Who is most like James and Amelia today?

If you like this, try: “The Theory of Everything” also starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” and read the book that inspired the film, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

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Trailer: Jane Austen’s Emma With Anna Taylor-Joy

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 10:26 am

I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s Emma (the novel she famously described as having a heroine no one would like) and the movie version with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Toni Collette. This new version, starring Anna Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds, and Connor Swindells, looks just as delightful.

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JoJo Rabbit

Posted on October 24, 2019 at 5:46 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language
Profanity: Strong and offensive language including anti-Semitic insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing peril and violence including a child injured in an explosion, wartime violence, bombs. guns, tragic deaths
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2019
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

The first thing you need to know is that writer/director Taika Waititi does not play HItler in “JoJo Rabbit,” and it does not portray the real Adolf Hitler as a comic figure. Waititi plays a child’s imaginary version of Hitler. He has more in common with Chris O’Dowd’s imaginary friend character in his very funny and endearing Moone Boy. In both, the adult male figure is a child’s idea of what a man is, or what he would like to be when he grows up. In the case of Jojo Rabbit, the nickname for the 10-year-old Austrian boy at the center of the film, he is especially in need of a role model because of the uncertainty in his own life and the upheavals that are all around him. So it makes sense that he would respond by clinging to something that seems strong and structured and certain. And that is why when we first see him, he is looking in the mirror to admire himself in his Hitler Youth uniform, very excited to learn all about becoming an active member of the Nazi party. His imaginary friend represents what he would like to be, but JoJo is a child, so to us, his version of Hitler is ten-year-old’s fantasy. Which means he is very silly.

I tell you all this because for the first half hour or so of “JoJo Rabbit” you might think you’re watching some sort of “Springtime for Hitler,” from “The Producers.” But it turns out that while “JoJo Rabbit” does portray the Nazis in a heightened, satiric, silly manner, this is not an insensitive or superficial film. But by the end, it wants to pack a wallop, as it should, and it does.

JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis, in a knockout of a performance) lives with his mother, Rosie (a career-best Scarlett Johansson, warm and witty). His father is off in the war but has not been heard from for a long while. JoJo and his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) go off to Hitler Youth camp, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), assisted by Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). The other boys laugh at him when he cannot bring himself to kill a rabbit (prompting his derisive nickname), and so to prove his courage, urged on by the imaginary Hitler, he takes a risk that leads to his being injured in an explosion, leaving scars on his face. He cannot return to school, so Rosie takes him to the Hitler Youth office and insists that Klenzdorf give him a job.

And then something happens that turns JoJo’s ideas about strength, courage, and power upside down. His ideas about Jews, too, though that takes a while. Waititi handles the tonal shift with great skill, and by the end of the film, the heightened tone blends seamlessly with the surreal absurdity of war, making the conclusion as meaningful to us as it is to the characters.

Parents should know that this movie is set in the last months of WWII and has wartime violence including guns and bombs, portrayal of virulent and systemic anti-Semitism. A child is injured in an explosion and a parent is murdered. Characters use strong language, drink alcohol, and smoke.

Family discussion: Why did JoJo imagine Hitler as an imaginary friend? What made him change his mind about Elsa? Why didn’t Elsa tell him what she knew about the letters?

If you like this, try: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows from the same writer/director. You may also enjoy satiric takes on war like “Oh, What a Lovely War,” “M*A*S*H,” and “King of Hearts.”

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The Current War: Director’s Cut

Posted on October 24, 2019 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violent content and thematic elements
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Flashback to Civil War scene with guns, animals and humans electrocuted, discussion of "humane" executions, sad death of wife and mother, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Anti-immigrant prejudice
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2019
Copyright 101 Studios 2019

There’a a saying usually attributed to Balzac: “Behind every fortune is a crime.” There is a fairy tale quality to stories of people who have exciting new ideas that change our lives and are rewarded with unimaginable fortunes, from the grad students who created Google to the garage tinkerers who founded Hewlett-Packard and the college dropouts who created Microsoft and Facebook.

But as any business school student knows, it takes more than a brilliant or even a monumentally disruptive idea to create a business. That requires the ability to execute. It is one set of skills to jot down great thoughts in a notebook but another set entirely to bring it all to life. It takes courage, because ordinary people are afraid of anything new and people who are invested in the old ways will try to stop you. And it takes a singular purpose that looks a lot like ruthlessness. That is the story “The Current War,” which is not as much about the inventions that transformed America from being lit by gas lamps and candles to being lit and powered by electricity as it is about the control of those inventions and the fortunes they made.

The three major players are America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Alva Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), and visionary Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). Also in the mix is one of the wealthiest men in the world, J.P. Morgan (Matthew McFayden) and the current Spider-Man, Tom Holland, as Edison’s aide Samuel Insull.

At the center of their battle is the fight over what kind of electricity will be used, Edison’s lower voltage direct current, which was safer but more limited in range, and the Tesla/Westinghouse alternating current, which travelled over longer distances, was powerful enough to fuel machinery as well as light bulbs, but was also more dangerous, potentially fatal. (Now you know what AC/DC means and how the Australian rock group got its name and why their first album was named High Voltage.)

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon avoids the too-often stuffy quality of prestige historical dramas with refreshingly dynamic camerawork from DP Chung-hoon Chung (“The Handmaiden,” “Stoker”) and editing by Justin Krohn and David Trachtenberg. The opening shots are as striking as any you’d find in an art-house or superhero movie, blowing the dust off of the idea that movies set in the past have to be stodgy to be taken seriously. The script by Michael Mitnick packs a lot of developments and details into the story, from the illness of Edison’s wife to the conflicts (and jealousy) between the talent and the money to the shifting loyalties and various strategic maneuvers (legal and illegal), some as complex as the engineering specs for the various contraptions. One fascinating detour reminds us that as soon as new technology is invented, someone will try to figure out a way to use it to kill people (it was still so new there was no word for electrocution). Another reminds us of the connection between the characters on screen and the very technology we use to tell their story.

“The Current War: Director’s Cut” places the human drama in the midst of cultural and technological shifts and shows us how they affect and are affected by each other. Vivid, compelling characters, smart, witty dialogue, and a cherry-on-the-top ending making this film not just enjoyable, but, yes, illuminating.

NOTE: The official title of this film includes the words “Director’s Cut” because after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival its release was put on hold because Harvey Weinstein (the distributor) was caught up in the #metoo accusations. The version shown at the festival was re-cut by Weinstein and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was not happy with that version. Martin Scorsese came on as a producer to make sure he was able to release the version he wanted.

Parents should know that this film include the sad illness and death of wife and mother, offscreen murder and execution, electrocutions of people and animals, Civil War scenes with shooting, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What is a bigger factor in success — having the best idea or being able to put it into practice — or wanting to win above all? What is Edison’s most important invention? Why did Elon Musk name his company Tesla?

If you like this, try: two biopics about Edison, “Young Tom Edison” with Mickey Rooney and “Edison the Man” with Spencer Tracy

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Downton Abbey

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Assassination attempt, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 16, 2019
Copyright 2019 Focus Features

There’s a reason the hugely popular “Downton Abbey” television series and this first theatrical release are named for the property, not the characters. The part of Downton Abbey the building, or, I should say, the estate, is played by real-life historic Highclere Castle. It is over a thousand acres and has 200 rooms. And (which you can stay in via Airbnb). The story began in 2010 (1912 in Downton years) with the vital question of the future of the estate, which like most British great homes, was entailed. That means that it would always be inherited by the eldest male of each generation. (For more on this issue, see Sense and Sensibility and Moving Midway and let me just have a brief aside here to say that one completely revolutionary decision of our founding fathers that does not get enough credit for deciding that in the United States people could leave their property and land as they wished.).

The noble family occupying Downton Abbey are the Crawleys, headed by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville of “Paddington”), who with his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has three beautiful daughters and no sons. The property will thus go to to a cousin, who conveniently has become engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Unfortunately, as the first episode begins, he had been traveling to the United States on the Titanic, and he has been killed. Lady Mary is very sorry to lose her fiancé, but the family is in a complete upheaval because the next male relative is someone they don’t even know. Meanwhile, one of the great strengths and points of interest in the show is that it devotes equal attention and respect to the extensive staff below stairs, the servants, who all have complicated characters and conflicts and lives. They include Mrs. Patmore, the cook (Lesley Nicol), Carson, the head butler (Jim Carter), Tom Branson, and the chauffeur (Allen Leech), who crosses the uncrossable line by marrying one of the Crawley daughters. And there’s everyone’s favorite character, the acid-tongued Dowager Duchess exquisitely played by Dame Maggie Smith.

There is a ton of drama and romance over the run of the series, plus World War I and other seismic historical events.

And so now, here we are with the first Downton Abbey feature film, picking up the story in 1927, and once again the issue of property and inheritance is at issue. Writer Julian Fellowes had a daunting challenge. He had to take two dozen characters the fans were deeply invested in and were used to being able to watch through long-form storylines over the course of months. It’s kind of like “The Avengers” for the PBS/Anglophile crowd (I consider myself happily and proudly in both camps).

And, you know what? He pulls it off, with a brilliant mechanism for bringing everyone together in a high-pressure situation that gives even the most devoted fan many sigh-worthy and highly satisfying developments. As the movie begins, we follow a very important letter from its creation to its receipt. They are to receive a visit from the King and Queen of England (that would be King George and Queen Mary, the parents of future abdicator Edward VIII and “The King’s Speech” younger brother who became George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history). This is an honor that no one can turn down. And so Downton is made ready, every tiara and silver serving piece polished, every piece of furniture in every one of the 200 rooms shined, and every arcane protocol meticulously followed.

There are ups and downs, none of the downs too terrible, all of the ups reassuring and satisfying. If we think about it for a moment, we will remember why we do not want to return to that world. It will take less than a moment if we consider the possibility we would be returning as the servants, not the nobility; the Crawleys may worry about money, but they get to worry in some beautiful clothes and settings while they are nicely cared for. We are aware that both the upstairs and downstairs characters struggle with the restrictions of their positions but somehow it all seems like a fairy tale to escape to in this lush and beautiful version, where we can all imagine ourselves dressing for dinner and receiving a visit from the royal family.

Parents should know that this film includes references to terminal illness, family conflicts, assassination attempt, scuffle, an out of wedlock child, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Why did the servants rebel? Why did Violet change her mind about the property? Do you agree with what Thomas told the princess?

If you like this, try: “Gosford Park” and the “Downton Abbey’ television series

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