The Croods: A New Age

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 2:06 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril, minor injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 25, 2020

Copyright Dreamworks 2020
The sequel to the animated film about the prehistoric family is sharply funny, exciting, warm-hearted, and a great watch for the whole family (though I’m recommending you wait for the streaming release on Christmas and not risk it in theaters).

We left the Croods at the end of the first film with Grug (Nicolas Cage) finally welcoming in a new family member, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). The family, which sleeps in a pile every night and can form a kill circle in an instant is, Grug thinks, situated as well as possible to find food and to avoid becoming food. But then the climate changes and they have to find another place to live. On the other side of a wall, they discover a kind of paradise, with plenty of food conveniently growing in rows. It is the home of the Betterman family (“emphasis on the Better“), Hope (Leslie Mann), Phil (Peter Dinklage), and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

The Bettermans, who have discovered tools and simple machines, have an elaborate tree-house, cultivated crops, and the wall, which keeps them safe. They have the concept of “privacy,” sleeping in separate rooms. They also have the concept of “rooms.” Also “windows,” and an amusing running joke is the way Grug’s son Thunk (Clark Duke) is mesmerized by the “screen” that’s just a hole in the wall.

The Bettermans are aghast at the lack of refinement of the primitive Croods and gently try to urge them to move on. Except for Guy, who they knew when he was a child. Guy is happy to be reunited with them, especially his childhood friend Dawn. He starts dressing like Phil Betterman.

We might expect Grug’s daughter Eep (Emma Stone) to be jealous of Dawn. But this movie wisely makes Eep and Dawn instant best friends in a funny and sweet scene where they discover what it means to know another girl. It also wisely does not make the Bettermans or the Croods all right or all wrong. Balancing the wish to protect your children from any possible harm with the importance of their learning to be independent and developing a sense of curiosity and adventure.

Basically, there are just two jokes here, but they are funny every time. It is funny when we see that the Croods are just like us (parents want to take care of children and children want to try new things, teenagers have a lot to say to each other but do not always have the words, girlfriends’ voices sometimes get a little screechy when they’re excited), and it is funny to see them discover for the first time in human history what we take for granted (privacy, screens). But what makes this movie worth a rewatch is the constant invention of its visuals, the exceptional detail in the characters, animals, and landscapes, its superb voice talent, and its touching depiction of the foundational ties of family and community.

Parents should know that this film includes some peril and mild injuries and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Is your family more like the Croods or The Bettermans? What would you pick for your tribal name? What is your family’s motto? Ask family members for the stories behind their scars.

If you like this, try: “The Croods,” and the “Ice Age” movies and my interview with this film’s director, Joel Crawford.

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Hillbilly Elegy

Posted on November 11, 2020 at 10:00 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, language throughout, and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence and family dysfunction
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie is economic diversity
Date Released to Theaters: November 13, 2020

Copyright 2020 Netflix
“Hillbilly Elegy” had just one job: to give us a sympathetic and relatable portrait of people we might dismiss as “rednecks” and, well, hillbillies, without being superficial or condescending. It fails, with a portrait of one dysfunctional Ohio family with roots in the Kentucky hill country that never knows what story it is trying to tell. It is closer to an episode of Jerry Springer than it is to an insightful portrait of the obstacles to opportunity that prevent people, with rare exceptions like Vance, to keep from repeating the same mistakes. (For genuine and meticulously researched understanding, try White Trash by Nancy Isenberg.)

The film is based on the best-selling memoir/anthropological study by J.D. Vance. The timing contributed to its success because it was thought to explain to book-buying, educated, urban voters the perspective of those who supported the election of a failed businessman turned reality TV star in 2016, including policies that seemed to be contrary to their own interests. As we see in this movie, that is consistent with personal choices that are devastating to their own interests, and the interests of the next generations.

The movie arrives at a different time. The resentful rural voters are no longer as exotic or unknown, and they have less political power. Nevertheless, as Democratic voters are still being urged to have empathy for the other side, to the extent there is curiosity about these communities, this is not a movie that is going to provide any enlightenment. It is most telling that it spends much too much time on the blandest and least interesting of the characters, the one based on the author of the book. And so it becomes about his struggle to accept and forgive his family and their history instead of being about them, their lives, their challenges, their choices.

We go back and forth in time with Vance, from the idyllic summers with his Kentucky “hillbilly” relatives to his life with an intelligent but overwhelmed single mother (Amy Adams as Beverly), who makes one catastrophically bad choice after another, and with his tough grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), who left home, pregnant, at age 13 and scrabbled a life for herself and her family.

J.D. (Owen Asztalos as a young teenager) tells us the summers in Kentucky were his happiest times, but as we see him with his cousins, we may wonder why. He finds a turtle with a wounded shell and wants to heal it, while his cousins tell him to tear off the shell or throw the turtle. J.D. explains that the turtle’s ribcage is connected to the carapace, which leads them to beat him up, which leads to everyone piling on. It might be worth exploring why there is so much suspicion of knowledge and institutions, why members of this family are unable to consider that the institutions that provide opportunities for economic stability and advancement, as imperfect as they are, may be a more reliable path. That they do not think it within the range of possibilities is rooted in innumerable factors and failures well worth exploring or even portraying, but this movie never tries. All it has to say is that these people think family comes first when it comes to faking drug test results or lying to the police but not so much when it comes to providing guidance, support, consistency, or a good example.

The shifts in time are more distracting than revealing. J.D. (now played by an expressionless Gabriel Basso) is a student at Yale Law School, after serving in the Marines and attending Ohio State. He is interviewing for summer jobs at tony law firms, essential to get the money he needs to pay the tuition for his final year of school. But he feels at a disadvantage compared to his Ivy League classmates, who have social ease. He has to make an emergency call to his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto in the thankless role of beautiful, endlessly patient and understanding support system) to ask which fork to use. This is not only an unforgivable cliche; it gives us no reason to feel sympathetic. A Marine Yale Law student is more than able to look that up before a fancy dinner or just watch what the host does.

J.D. gets an emergency call. His mother is in the hospital. She overdosed. On heroin.

He drives all night to get to Ohio. And we see incidents from the past as Bev struggles with drug abuse (once asking J.D. to pee into a cup to use for her drug test, another time impulsively marrying her supervisor and moving J.D. into his house, getting fired from her nursing job for taking a patient’s medication. If we learn anything it is that having an adult who is committed to keeping a child on the straight and narrow makes a difference. But why there was only one in this child’s life, why his sister seemed to do okay without going to live with Mamaw, and why Mamaw was able to learn from mistakes is all glossed over.

Even Amy Adams and Glenn Close are unable to make this work. They yell at each other with colorful countrified expletives (Close actually has to say at one point, “Kiss my ruby red asshole!”) sounding more like the caricatures on “Mama’s Family” than human beings with vulnerabilities and intimate connections. As we see home movies of the real characters over the credits, our only conclusion is that the filmmakers spent more time getting the outside right than the inside. The members of this community deserve better from the haves in our society, but they deserve better from this movie, too.

Parents should know that this movie includes extensive family dysfunction, substance abuse, and domestic abuse as well as constant strong language. Family members and teenagers use drugs. Domestic violence includes punching, dangerous driving, negligence, and setting a husband on fire.

Family discussion: Why was J.D. able to make a different life for himself? Should he have stayed with his mother when Mamaw wanted to take him? When he left for the interview?

If you like this, try: “White Oleander” and White Trash

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On the Rocks

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language and some sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 24, 2020
Copyright 2020 A24

I admit that I was about to give up on Sofia Coppola. I admired her early films, “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” in part because of her exquisite framing and intriguing silences. But her later films made the framing seem precious and the silences seem empty. They were like precisely arranged bento boxes created for display only, beautiful to look at but not very nourishing or flavorful.

But now we have “On the Rocks,” a slight film but with more warmth and a more relaxed tone than her previous work. It’s bittersweet, but it is beguiling. Rashida Jones plays Laura, a writer in New York living with her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) and two young children, one still a toddler. Dean has been working hard at his job, which requires a lot of travel, and Laura has been feeling neglected, struggling with her writing, and she begins to worry that Dean might be having an affair with the beautiful and a bit intimidating colleague who travels with him (Jessica Henwick and Fiona). While he is traveling the world and making big deals, she says, “I’m just the buzzkill waiting to schedule things.” And then, for her birthday, he gives her a kitchen appliance.

One reason Laura might be suspicious is her father, a charming and utterly unrepentant man about town, who has never been faithful to a partner, including Laura’s mother. But he loves Laura, and thinks the best way for him to help her is to help her follow Dean to find out for sure. She isn’t sure whether it’s better to find out that he is having an affair or finding out he is not having an affair but she has just become boring. “Ehst if we find out he is just busy and I’m in a rut?”

Laura’s father, Felix, is played by Coppola favorite Bill Murray, who worked with her in “Lost in Translation” and “A Very Murray Christmas.” The fun of the movie is seeing Jones and Murray together as they take us to one fabulous Manhattan location after another, to the sounds of the lush score from Phoenix. They adore each other, but there is strain between them. He betrayed her mother — and the woman who came after her, and many others. “Why do women get plastic surgery?” Felix asks Laura. “Because of men like you,” she says. He tells her he prefers women who have not had work done and she says he prefers all kinds of women. When he is stopped for speeding as they are following Dean, he utterly disarms the policeman by telling him he knew the cop’s father and grandfather. “It must be very nice to be you,” she says. He smiles, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The plot barely exists, but like Laura and Felix, it is more about spending time together than answering the question about Dean. “On the Rocks” is like a lighter, sweeter Woody Allen film, a love letter to Manhattan, to music, to fathers and daughters, and to love itself.

Parents should know that the theme of this movie is adultery, including strong language and sexual references.

Family discussion: Why was Laura worried about Dean? Why didn’t she talk to him about her concerns?

If you like this, try; “Midnight in Paris” and “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” written by and starring Rasida Jones

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The War With Grandpa

Posted on October 8, 2020 at 3:15 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for PG some thematic elements, rude humor, language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon-style comic peril and mayhem, some injuries, mourning, funeral scene
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 9, 2020
Copyright 101 Studios 2020

Sigh.

Robert Kimmel’s 1984 book, The War With Grandpa, is a lot of fun and also thoughtful about family, resolving conflicts, and war. The movie has tons of star power but it is just dumb slapstick, with escalating cartoon-style mayhem. It’s been on the shelf since it was originally scheduled for release in 2017 and even by pandemic shut-in standards it is barely watchable.

Which is not to say that some children won’t be amused by it because, see above re slapstick and mayhem. For the rest of us, it’s just sad and exhausting seeing Robert De Niro, yes that Robert De Niro, dropping his pants and flashing his son-in-law, plus sticking his hands down the pants of a dead body at a funeral. Then there’s Uma Thurman doing a spit-take and running around in a Christmas elf costume, plus a lot of predictable jokes about old people (they don’t understand technology! Hilarious!), married people (Dad feels diminished by his job, his father-in-law, and sometimes his wife), teenagers (they like to make out!), middle schoolers (puberty humor! bullies!), and little kids (precocious witticisms!).

The story is in the title. De Niro plays Grandpa, still mourning his late wife and not doing so well living at home since he can no longer drive. After he gets frustrated at the grocery store because they’ve switched to all self-checkout and, say it with me, old people don’t understand technology, he gets into a fight with the security guard. And so his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) says he has to move in with her and her family, including her architect husband Arthur (Rob Riggle), teenage daughter who is always running off to “study” with her boyfriend (Laura Marano), middle school son Peter (Oakes Fegley of “Pete’s Dragon”), and youngest daughter Jenny (Poppy Gagnon).

Pete gets moved to the attic so Grandpa can have his room, and Pete is not happy. And so he slips a note under his old bedroom’s door signed “Secret Warrior.” It is not much of a secret, though, since he says he wants his room back. It is a declaration of war. At first, Grandpa doesn’t take it too seriously. After all, Pete is just a kid and he does feel back about taking the room. But then there is one prank too many and someone who knows what a real war is (“It’s not like a video game”) is in. But first, some rules of engagement. No collateral damage (no one else in the family can be affected, like that’s possible) and no tattling.

Each party is advised by friends. Pete has his pals from school and Grandpa has his buddies Jerry (Christopher Walken) and Danny (Cheech Marin), and later a pretty store clerk (Jane Seymour). But none of it really makes any sense and some elements are unnecessarily sour. If Arthur is an architect, can’t he figure out a better way to use the space than sticking Pete in a rat and bat-infested attic? In fact, Arthur serves no role whatsoever in the story except to try to prove that he deserves some respect, which would be nice if he actually earned some. How can this family afford a crazily over-the-top Christmas-themed birthday party for a child including artificial snow? Even if it made sense for Grandpa to agree to a war, why would he let Pete pick the battleground for the supposed winner-take-all? It never gets past the idea that there is just something uncomfortable about a kid picking on his sad grandfather this mean-spirited and selfish way, while insisting that he loves him and expecting us to like him.

That’s a lot more thought than this movie deserves. Even the A-list cast can’t win the war with a dumbed-down script, awkwardly staged stunts, and lackluster direction.

Parents should know that this movie includes comic peril and mayhem with a lot of pratfalls and injuries but no one seriously hurt. There is also some potty humor, along with references to puberty, a school bully, crotch hits, teen making out sessions, some schoolyard language, and implied nudity.

Family discussion: Why did Pete declare war? Why did Ed agree? Were those the right rules of engagement? What would you advise that family?

If you like this, try: the book by Robert Kimmel Smith, “Spy Kids,” “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and the various versions of “Freaky Friday”

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The Personal History of David Copperfield

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material and brief violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcoholism, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Brief violence including a fight scene and some abuse, sad offscreen death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Race-blind casting
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2020

Copyright 2019 FilmNation Entertainment
There is no higher praise than to say that Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop,” “Veep”) has adapted the book Charles Dickens said was his favorite of all the novels he had written, the book closest to his own history, in a manner as jubilant and shrewdly observed, as touching, as romantic, as exciting, as the novel itself.

For those who made not be familiar with the story: David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman that begins with the birth of the title character to Clara, a sweet but naive weak-natured young widow (played by Morfydd Clark, who also plays David’s first love, Dora). They have a blissful life together until she marries the stern and cruel Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who, with his equally formidable sister (Gwendolyn Christie), takes over the household.

Murdstone sends David to work in a bottle factory, where he lodges with the impecunious Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi). Years later, he runs away to his only relative, the formidable Miss Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives with a kind-hearted but rather vague man named Mr. Dick, who struggles with intrusive thoughts about King Charles I.

Miss Betsey sends David to school, where he meets the indolent Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard of “Dunkirk”) and is befriended by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar). After graduation he goes to work for Mr. Spenlow, and is immediately overwhelmed with love for his daughter, Dora. During all of these adventures and more David changes names and positions in society several times, and the concerns he and others have about their status in society is a recurring theme.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite books of all time, and I well understand it would take a trilogy as ambitious as “Lord of the Rings” to fully do justice to all of its characters and events. But even I had to admit that it has been judiciously pruned (the characters of Rosa Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth have been combined, no Barkis or Miss Mowcher, Tommy Traddles only mentioned, etc.). I strongly concur with dropping the “Little” from Emily’s name, and quickly got used to the idea that she was nearly an adult when David was a child. And I even applauded some happier resolutions for some of the characters. After 170 years, they deserve it.

And the cast! Not since the grand 1935 MGM version with Freddie Bartholomew as young David, Lionel Barrymore as Daniel Peggoty, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone (no one has ever been as good at naming characters as Charles Dickens), has there been such fitting richness of acting talent. Iannucci’s decision to use race-blind casting, without regard to the genetic realism of biological connections only adds to the universality and ample bounty that is fitting for Dickens, who populated his works with more vivid and varied characters per page than any other author in the English language.

Dev Patel is a superb choice for David, who is thoughtful, open-hearted, and innocent but with a strong core of honor and optimism. We first see David, like the real-life Dickens who went on very popular speaking tours, reading the book’s famous opening line on stage before an appreciative audience. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” That framing, that self-awareness is fitting for an authorial voice that opens a book by challenging us to make up our own minds about what is to come. Iannucci’s theatricality and gift for telling stories cinematically shimmers through the film, with occasional images projected onto a wall, a hand reaching down into a model of the set, Patel talking to his younger self, played by Ranveer Jaiswal.

Class as it is perceived and as it is in reality is a theme of the film, but so is story-telling itself. Mr. Dick struggles to tell his story without reference to Charles I, and David comes up with an ingenious way to help him. Even as a young child, David wrote down memorable turns of phrase he heard on scraps of paper. His realization that those pieces of paper and pieces of memories are the basis for understanding his past, his purpose, and his future is a deeply satisfying answer to the question he poses at the beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes some tense and sad moments including an abusive stepfather and the offscreen death of a parent. There are financial reversals, confrontations (one fistfight), and a character embezzles.

Family discussion: Is David the hero of the story? Why is it so important to him to be considered a gentleman?

If you like this, try: The MGM version and the book, as as well as other film adaptations of Dickens books including the David Lean “Great Expectations” and the many, many versions of “A Christmas Carol” and a film about the writing of “A Christmas Carol” with Dan Stevens as Dickens, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

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