The Farewell

Posted on July 18, 2019 at 5:34 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking
Profanity: Brief mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness, grief and loss
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 19, 2019

Copyright 2019 A24
“The Farewell” is based on a true story, as told by Lulu Wang on NPR’s “This American Life.” Wang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. When her grandmother, still in China, received a terminal diagnosis, the news was delivered to her family but not to the woman herself, as is the practice in China. They have a saying: “It’s not the cancer that kills them, but the fear.” The relatives had to figure out a way to see her without making her suspicious about the reason, so they dragooned a cousin into having a wedding in China to give the family an excuse for getting together and spending time with her.

In the movie, Wang’s character is Billi (Awkwafina, shining in a very impressive lead dramatic debut role), a student in New York. The movie informs us as it opens that it is “based on an actual lie.” Billi is very close to her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), meaning that they talk often by phone and love each other unconditionally. But that does not mean that Billi is honest with her grandmother. She tells the kind of little white lie most of us tell our mothers and grandmothers. Half a world away, Nai Nai solicitously asks her granddaughter whether she is wearing a hat and Billi assures her that she is. Billi understands that it isn’t about a hat; her grandmother is just showing that she cares and in her own way she is doing the same.

Billi does not have the same easy warmth with her parents, and she does not tell them the truth, either. But that is more to protect herself from their disapproval and nagging than to reassure them. And she is enough of an American to be very uncomfortable with the idea of not telling Nai Nai the truth. Her mother explains that while Americans are all about individual autonomy and self-determination, Chinese think of the group first, and that means that the family is most important.

And so, they concoct the lie that Billi’s cousin, who lives in Japan, has decided to marry his girlfriend, and the wedding will be in China. They will all gather for a fake happy occasion because it’s “too painful to say goodbye.” For Billi, though, as I suspect for most of the people who will read this review, it is more painful to feel disconnected from her sorrow and sense of devastating loss.

This film is sharply written and beautifully performed. It is a perfect example of the adage that the more specific a story is, the more universal it is. The Chinese settings and customs will seems strange and in some cases odd or funny to westerners, but everyone will understand the emotions — the way the family members want and expect so much from each other. Cultures may have different ideas about what we tell each other and how we mourn. But we all experience fear and grief, and we all try to find ways to comfort each other. Sometimes we tell stories like this one to help bring us together.

Parents should know that the themes of this film included illness and grief. Characters drink and get tipsy and there is some brief mild language.

Family discussion: Who should decide what medical information to give to Nai Nai? Why is Billi closer to her grandmother than her parents? What elements of this story are most like your family?

If you like this, try: “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” and “The Joy Luck Club”

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If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted on December 27, 2018 at 12:08 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Acohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, references to rape
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 26, 2019
Copyright Annapurna 2018

When I interviewed writer/director Barry Jenkins about “Moonlight,” we talked about the movie’s haunting score, composed by Nicholas Britell. “Many directors would use songs of the era to place the audience in the film’s three time periods,” I said. “Two things,” he replied. “First, we could not afford the rights to those songs. But more important, I believe these characters deserve a full orchestral score.”

I thought of those words as I watched Jenkins’ latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwinmy #1 film of 2018, and winner of the Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Spirit Awards. There were moments when it did not feel like I was watching the film. It was more like I was immersed in it, as though I could feel it pulsing through my veins. The entire theme of the movie could be, “These characters deserve a full orchestral score” along with the highest level of every other creative and aesthetic element available to a filmmaker, from Baldwin’s lyrical words to the luscious cinematography of “Moonlight’s” James Laxton, another gorgeous score by Britell, costumes that carry the narrative and illuminate the characters, and performances of infinite sensitivity and humanity.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” succeeds brilliantly at one of cinema’s most central functions: a love story with sizzling chemistry between two impossibly beautiful people. Stephen James (“Race”) and newcomer Kiki Layne are 2018’s most compelling romantic couple, pure pleasure to watch. Their relationship is in every way the heart of this story, the reason we feel so sharply the injustice and, in some ways harder to accept, the resignation that is the most undeniable signifier of generations of institutional racism. We see that most powerfully when Oscar-winner Regina King, as the girl’s mother, looks in the mirror as she prepares like a matador entering the bullring for a meeting that could make all the difference for the couple. She cannot expect much, but she has to try. Throughout the movie, there is resignation and diminished hopes but there is also resilience. And “Beale Street” reminds us that undiminished and imperishable love abide: romantic love, the love of parents and siblings, even an unexpected encounter with a warmhearted landlord. There is the love Baldwin and Jenkins have for these characters. And, most of all, it reminds us that this is a story that deserves to be told with the best of what movies have to offer, including a full orchestral score.

James and Layne play Fonny and Tish, childhood sweethearts who are young and deeply in love. He is wrongfully arrested for rape by a bigoted cop with a grudge and is in jail when Tish tells him that she is going to have a baby. We see what happened before and what happens after in a jazzy, non-linear form, luscious images and exquisite performances. This film is a masterpiece, like its characters of a time nearly half a century ago, “ready,” and exactly right on time.

Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and situations, references to rape, unjust charges and abuse of the justice system, racism, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: Why does Sharon take off her wig? Why do the mothers respond so differently to the news of the baby?

If you like this, try: “Moonlight” from the same writer/director and the books of author James Baldwin

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Mary Poppins Returns

Posted on December 18, 2018 at 10:25 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action
Profanity: Mild language in a song
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, references to sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 19, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Walt Disney
If I may borrow from the original “Mary Poppins movie” for a moment, the new sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a very jolly holiday with Mary indeed. Inspired, like the first, by the book series by P.L. Travers, this movie has Emily Blunt taking over from Oscar-winner Julie Andrews as the magical nanny who arrives once again just as the Banks family needs her most.

In the first film, she was nanny to Jane and Michael Banks. She took them on magical adventures that included a tea party on the ceiling and diving into a chalk picture for an animated musical number with dancing penguins. But the real magic she brought to the Banks family was a reminder of what was important. The fond but distracted parents learned that it was more important to fly a kite with the family than to keep the job that supports the family and its domestic employees or fight for the rights of women. (Well, the 60’s was a complicated time. But the message of family connections is still valid.)

This sequel very sweetly brings Mary Poppins back, once again arriving from the sky via a parrot-head handled umbrella, again to care for the Banks children, meaning the now-grown Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and voice of Paddington Ben Wishaw). Oh, and Michael’s three children, too, who have taken on too many adult responsibilities as the family still mourns the loss of their mother. Jane works for the rights of workers and does her best to help her brother and his children, who still live in the old house on Cherry Tree Lane.

They may lose the house, though, as Michael cannot pay the bank, yes, the same one his father worked at, what he owes. It’s now run by Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), who promises he will do everything he can to help Michael, but who shows up as a wolf in an animated adventure when Mary Poppins takes the children into the design on their late mother’s porcelain bowl, so perhaps he should not be trusted.

Jane and Michael remember Mary Poppins, but now believe that they only imagined the magical adventures. They have lost their ability to see magic in the world. Mary Poppins, with her brisk, no-explanations manner, has come back to show them how to find it. And that means a visit to another of her eccentric relatives (Meryl Streep, enjoying herself enormously), and journeys undersea via the bathtub and into the sky with balloons. And it means singing and dancing, too, with a wild music-hall-style number in an animated theater and a tender ballad about The Place Where Lost Things Go. Plus, Dick van Dyke is back. And he dances.

We take it for granted that this movie would have visual Disney magic. No one assembles a more gifted collection of production designers, costume designers, and visual effects designers than Disney, and no studio has a better, more organic sense of its own history and culture. So when Disney decided to revisit the 54-year-old classic based on P.L. Travers’s novels, after having already mined its own history with a movie about the making of that movie, it was fair to expect that it would look and feel as though we had never left. The magic touch is there, with gentle references to the earlier film, including the animated adventure with a retro, hand-drawn, cel-based look along the lines of Disney’s specialty, and an enchanting appearance from Dick Van Dyke, who played two characters in the original. Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins and “Hamilton’s’ Lin-Manuel Miranda as her lamp-lighting friend are practically perfect in every way. And, as “Saving Mr. Banks” reminded us, the real magic, is that at its heart it is not just about fantasy adventures but about healing the family. The songs, the special effects, the imagination are a lot of fun but what makes this movie top ten-worthy is the heart.

Parents should know that there are references to a sad death of a parent, worries about money, and some situations with mild peril. A song has some mildly spicy lyrics with references to nudity.

Family discussion: Which was your favorite adventure? Why didn’t Mary Poppins stay?

If you like this, try: the books by P.L. Travers and the classic original film

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Ben is Back

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie, drug dealing, drug use, overdoses
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 4, 2019

Copyright Lionsgate 2018
Movies about families struggling with substance abuse, like real life struggles, generally follow the same pattern. A family member gets involved with drugs (or alcohol or some other addiction) and then there is the horrified realization of how serious the problem is, hope, betrayal, hope, back-sliding, incalculable damage to other family members, anger, recriminations, tears, hope, more back-sliding, maybe some more hope. We saw that most recently in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the joint memoirs of a father and son. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,””What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) wisely takes a different approach in “Ben is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea,” “Boy Erased”).

As he explained to me in an interview, Hedges has always been fascinated by the story of Orpheus, who followed the woman he loved into Hades to try to save her. As the title tells us, this movie begins when Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home just before Christmas. We learn everything that the typical substance abuse movie takes two hours to cover in the first few minutes, from the very different reactions of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is overjoyed to see him and his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), who is furious and horrified. (Nice Christmas-y names, there, Holly and Ivy). And then we see that Holly may be happy to have Ben home, but she has not forgotten who he is — she immediately empties out the medicine cabinet and hides her jewelry.

He says he got permission from the residential rehab program. It is probably not true, but what can a mother do? She wants it to be true so badly. She wants him to be home and to want to be home. And it is Christmas. Holly’s husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the father of her two younger children, does not want Ben to be there. Holly persuades him to give Ben (another) chance.

And then, she must follow him into Hades. An incursion from Ben’s old life in the underworld of drug abuse means that Ben must visit many of his former contacts, and Holly insists on going with him. She may have thought she knew and had experienced the worst, that she knows how far she can go, how far she is willing to go, but she will learn that none of that is true.

Hedges, as always, approaches his characters with a deep, tenderhearted humanity. He is clear-eyed about the genuine villains in this story, including those who make and sell legal opiates, and he recognizes the mistakes even well-meaning, attentive, caring people make. He also understands how family dynamics curb and enable abuse, and how abuse distorts and damages everyone in the substance abuser’s orbit. But he has sympathy for addicts and their families, acknowledging their mistakes and their struggles but always wanting the best for them.

We go backwards through Ben’s life (and Holly’s), meeting people who used with him and people who used him. We see how he first got hooked, one of the movie’s most powerful moments as Holly confronts the now-pathetic culprit in a shopping mall food court. We see the collateral damage, the grieving mother, the near-destroyed friend. And, paraphrasing the words of the old public service ad, we know what it did to Ben, but does Holly know what it is doing to her?

Roberts, who has always been one of the most expressive of actors, gives one of her all-time best performances here. From the film’s very first moment, as she persuades her younger children to do something with a small, seemingly harmless bribe, we see how much of her energy and focus is on managing the world for the people she loves. As she and Ben are driving through their own version of Hades, she keeps assuring her family that everything is fine and that she and Ben will be home soon. It is as though she thinks that if she can only persuade everyone, she can will it into being. The skill of this movie is that while it is clear she cannot, we wish she could.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of drug abuse, overdoses, rehab, drug dealing, sexual references, sad offscreen death, and very strong language.

Family discussion: How is this different from other stories of substance abuse? What do we learn from the scene in the food court? Why can’t Holly tell her family the truth?

If you like this, try: “Beautiful Boy” and “Flight”

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Instant Family

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and some peril and accidents, brief disturbing images of injuries, family confrontations, issues of foster care
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 4, 2019

Copyright 2018 Paramount Pictures
An adoptive mom explained to me once that most couples who adopt have “a drag-er and a drag-ee.” That can be the essence of a good partnership; parenting in any form is one of life’s greatest leaps into the unknown and it makes sense to talk it out thoroughly while understanding that no one can ever understand the terror, the exhaustion, the way children “push buttons you didn’t know you had,” and of course the unparalleled joy of being a parent until you get there, by which time you are probably too terrified, exhausted, and, yes, filled with joy to understand it even then. That is why we gravitate to movies like “Instant Family.” They give us a chance to think about how much our families mean to us.

Instant Family,” based in part on the real-life story of writer-director Sean Anders, tells us everything we need to know about Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) in the first scene, as they race through a decrepit mess of a house thrilled at the possibilities only they can see. Their optimistic vision and instinctive teamwork will be needed when a half joking remark about adopting an older child to catch yup with their contemporaries leads Ellie to start looking at websites about foster parenting and then to being the drag-er to Pete’s drag-ee. “This is what we do! We see potential in things and fix them up!” But of course, as someone said, adults do not make children; children make adults. The parents get some fixing up, too.

After some foster parent training, they go to a “foster fair,” to meet some of the children who are available. They were not planning to foster a teen, but they are drawn to a remarkably self-possessed girl named Lizzy (Isabela Moner) (and a bit intimidated by her, too). The social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer) tell them she has two younger siblings. They are daunted by the idea of going from zero kids to three all at once, but understand the importance of keeping them together and cannot resist their adorable photos. The next thing they know, they are calling out, “Kids! Dinner is ready!” and wondering whether it will be reassuring or intrusive to kiss them goodnight.

You can tell Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) has been through it and has spent time with other foster families. The film has well-chosen details of the two steps forward-one step back relationship with the children, especially Lizzie, who is used to taking care of her brother and sister herself and still hopes that their mother will come for them. It is frank about the issues of fostering children of different ethnicities, the ambivalent feelings about the possibility of the biological mother returning, and the moments when Pete and Ellie wonder if they’ve done the right thing, and if not loving the children immediately makes them horrible people. Ellie says at one point that she feels like she is babysitting someone else’s kids. And she’s right. They don’t become hers because a social worker says so or because a judge says so. They become hers because she does not give up. And because she fights for Lizzie. And because she brushes Lizzy’s hair so gently and lovingly.

Wahlberg and Byrne are perfectly cast and the tone and pacing are exactly right for depicting family life, where tears are mixed with laughter and laughter is mixed with tears. They are hilariously funny and also touching and moving. There’s great support from Notaro and Spencer and from Margo Martindale as a feisty grandmother, and Moner is excellent as Lizzy whether she’s being defiant, manipulative, protective, or vulnerable. This story could have been cloying or it could have been soap opera. But Anders and his cast make it into a genuinely heartwarming experience that makes us wish we could be part of their family, too.

Parents should know that this is a warm-hearted comedy that is frank about some of the issues presented in foster parenting and adoption including trauma and neglect, drug abuse, predatory behavior and sexting, with some strong language.

Family discussion: What were the biggest challenges Pete and Ellie faced and how well did they deal with them? What is the best way to help kids in the foster program?

If you like this movie, try: “Room for One More” with Cary Grant and his then-wife Betsy Drake

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