When You Finish Saving the World

Posted on January 19, 2023 at 6:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine, teenage drug use
Violence/ Scariness: References to domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 20, 2023

Credit: Beth Garrabrant Copyright 2022 !24
Jesse Eisenberg’s first feature film as writer and director is reminiscent of his breakthrough performance in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” They are both stories of teenagers beginning to understand themselves and their parents a little better through some of the inevitable painful discoveries of adolescence.

“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard plays Ziggy, a high school student who is very proud of the 20 thousand fans worldwide who tune in to hear his weekly live streaming performances. He sings original songs he describes as “folk rock with alternative influences” and thanks them for their comments and tips in their native languages.

Ziggy lives with his parents, the reserved, bookish Roger (Jay O. Sanders) and the slightly formal and sardonic Grace (Julianne Moore), director of a shelter for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse.

Both Ziggy and Grace make efforts to connect to new people. Abused wife Angie (Eleonore Hendricks, creating a character of great specificity and depth in her brief scenes) and her teenage son Kyle (Billy Bryk) arrive at the shelter after police intervention, and Grace is touched by Kyle’s empathy and support for his mother. She becomes over-involved in trying to help him, perhaps displacing her feelings out of frustration with Ziggy. When she brings him on errands and sees him warmly speaking Spanish with one of the shelter’s former residents, she abruptly insists on leaving. She encourages Kyle to apply to college, which makes Angie feel threatened.

And Ziggy is drawn to a girl at school. Her name is Lila (a wonderfully charismatic Alisha Boe). He awkwardly tries to impress her with his live streaming success, but sees that what she cares about is activism on behalf of social justice and the environment. He has no idea how to approach her, and his awkward attempts will be painfully familiar to anyone who has survived adolescence.

There are three kind of music in the film, perhaps three and a half. The first is the light, electronic tune played for us in the audience to establish the tone. The rest are diegetic, the music played and listened to by the characters. Grace favors classical music which she plays in the car. She listens to Bizet’s “Carmen” when she drives Ziggy to school, refusing when he asks her to play anything else. Ziggy plays his original songs on an acoustic guitar, at first about his feelings but then, as he using Lila’s poem about colonialism and exploitation of the Marshall Islands for lyrics.

Eisenberg’s screenplay, based on his Audible book, is thoughtful with an actor’s sensitivity to tone and character, with impeccable casting choices. He knows that he can tell us as much by having Ziggy and Kyle pass each other at school or by the Ziggy he walks down the same sidewalk at different times in the story as he does with Ziggy’s painfully awkward attempts to tell Lila how “lit” and “terra” she is. Moore, as Grace finally watching Ziggy’s songs on YouTube, gives another of her gorgeous performances, with so much going on underneath Grace’s air of righteousness, a sense of loss of the closeness she had to Ziggy as a child, exhaustion over the overwhelming difficulties of the people at the shelter. Some parts of the story do not quite work, but the details are thoroughly imagined and the performances are thoughtful and involving.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, wine, and teen drug use, with references to domestic abuse.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Grace want to listen to Ziggy’s music and what changed her mind? Why didn’t Grace tell the truth about helping Kyle? Why did Ziggy go to the shelter? What should he have said to Lila?

If you like this, try: “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Edge of Seventeen”

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The Fabelmans

Posted on November 20, 2022 at 3:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence, some strong language, and drug use
Alcohol/ Drugs: alcohol, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Bullies
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 23, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
A small boy is about to see his first movie, and it is 1952, so it is in a big, dark theater, on a big, bright screen. His engineer father is explaining persistence of vision, the optical/neurological factors that make us think that still pictures shown to us 22 times a second are moving. “The photographs pass faster than your brain can keep up.” His artist/musician mother has a different description of what movies are: “They’re like dreams that we never forget.” And of course, both are right.

That boy will be dazzled by the movie, which would go on to win the Oscar for best picture in 1952, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” an exciting story of a circus. The train crash sequence was so big and so real that he could not get it out of his mind for days and days. He asks his parents for a train set for Hanukkah, and as he opened up a new train car each night he imagined re-creating — understanding — controlling — that crash. His father (Paul Dano as Burt) chides him for breaking the train. His mother (Michelle Williams as Mitzi) suggests that he take the family’s home movie camera and film one last crash, so he can watch it as many times as he likes.

As the title suggests, “The Fabelmans” has a touch of myth, of movie magic, as Mrs. Fabelman would say, a dream. But it is also as Mr. Fabelman would approve, grounded in facts and mechanical reality. Steven Spielberg co-wrote the film with Tony Kushner, based on his own life as a child and a teenager. It brims with love for his family, with the kind of understanding that it takes decades to achieve, if ever. And it is told with the true mastery of a brilliant filmmaker equally grounded in the mechanics of movies and the creation of big, engrossing dreams for us to watch together in the dark.

No one understands cinematic storytelling better than Spielberg, and seeing him tell his own story using the very techniques this film gives us a chance to see as they develop makes this one of the best films of the year and one of the best films ever from a master storyteller. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and music by Spielberg’s longtime favorite John Williams gorgeously evoke the past without making it seem musty or distant. Watching it feels like a gift.

As the movie begins, money is tight and Burt has to supplement his salary by fixing televisions. But his gift in designing the fundamentals that would lead to personal computers leads to a new job offer in Phoenix. The Fabelmans move, and Burt brings along his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), so beloved by everyone that he feels like family. Burt is a loving husband and father but very serious and methodical. Bennie is fun, always making everyone laugh.

Sammy keeps making movies, casting his younger sisters and later his Boy Scout troop in remarkably ambitious and creative films (you can see the real ones, meticulously re-created here, on YouTube). As a teenager, now sensitively played by Gabriel LaBelle, his movies get more complex. In one lovely moment, a hole punched in sheet music by a high heeled shoe inspires a brilliant and very analog special effect only the son of both an artist and an engineer could concoct.

Form and content follow each other and intertwine, especially with a sensational final shot, as Sammy/Steve begins to understand the potential and the power of story-telling. When his mother is sad, his father asks him to make a movie to cheer her up. When he is editing one of his family films, he sees on celluloid what he missed when he was standing there. When he cannot tell his mother why he is upset, shows her a film to explain. In an agonizing moment, he cradles the camera like a teddy bear. Through chance, he is able to use a professional camera and through a combination of determination and chance he meets and gets some surprising advice from one of the all-time movie greats.

He is confronted with the challenges of family conflict and adolescence. He is bullied for being Jewish. He wants to kiss a girl. He feels betrayed by two people he loves. An uncle in show business (a terrific brief role for Judd Hirsch) tells him that he will always be torn between love and art — and that he will choose art.

Williams and Dano are superb as the Fabelmans. As Mitzi watches the movie Sammy made for her and as she tries to explain a difficult decision to Sammy we see clearly the range of emotions she is feeling, including the perpetual struggle of all parents between her needs and the wishes of her children. Spielberg and Kushner bring compassion to these characters that they themselves struggle to find.

They also convey the exceptional ability to observe and analyze that is the great gift of any artist, to be cherished and nourished by imagination, but that must be reined in to allow for personal connection. Only the rarest of talents can bring both to their work and that is what makes this film a joy.

NOTE: My daughter worked on some of the costumes of this film which are, of course, outstanding under the direction of Oscar-winner Mark Bridges.

Parents should know that this film includes family tensions, adultery, and divorce, some strong language, alcohol and marijuana.

Family discussion: Why could Sammy see things more clearly through the camera than he could without it? Why was Logan upset by the Ditch Day movie? How did each of his parents influence Sammy?

If you like this, try: “Belfast” and Spielberg movies like “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

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Sam & Kate

Posted on November 10, 2022 at 5:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana and alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 11, 2022
Copyright 2022 Vertical Entertainment

The movie is called Sam and Kate, but it is equally about Bill and Tina. And it is about the actors who play them. Bill is played by Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman. and his son Sam is played by Hoffman’s real-life son, Jake Hoffman. Tina is played by Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek, and her daughter Kate is played by Spacek’s real-life daughter, Schuyler Fisk. That real-life connection gives the film extra interest and extra grounding. There is a palpable sense of trust in the scenes of Sam and Kate interacting with their parents that lets them show frustration without making us for a moment doubt their love.

It will take a while for Sam and Kate to learn that they have a lot in common. They each lived somewhere else and have returned to a small town to help care for their parents. Bill is cranky and demanding. We first see Sam resignedly sitting on a chair in a huge big box store as Bill rides around on a scooter annoying the staff. Tina and Kate have a warmer relationship, but we will learn that Tina is more dependent on Kate than she seemed.

Sam loves to draw but he is stuck working at a chocolate factory. His Kate owns a bookstore. Both are feeling isolated and lost, though Sam has hoped that Kate will help him feel less lost. He awkwardly tries to ask her out in her store but she says she is not dating at the moment.

On Christmas, all four attend the same church service. When Tina’s car stalls in the church parking lot, Bill tries to help, and the four get acquainted. Bill takes Tina on a date and Kate agrees to let Sam take her out.

First time feature riter/director Darren Le Gallo is better with the in-between moments than the plot developments, which is often the case with beginners who have not yet learned to trust the audience. When the chaacters are just interacting quietly they convey a great deal and the events interrupt the delicacy of those scenes. Jake Hoffman, very impressive in small roles in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (as shoe designer turned felon Steve Madden) and in the otherwise disappointing “Otherhood” moves smoothly into a central role. And Fisk, an engaging screen presence going back to 1995’s “Babysitter’s Club,” has a lovely, expressive light. Watching them together as Sam and Kate begin to open up despite all of the baggage and self-protective distance and fear of vulnerability is touching and a reminder that it is those in between moments that can matter most.

Parents should know that this film has a non-explicit sexual situation and some crude sexual references, strong language, alcohol and marijuana, and a sad death.

Family discussion: Why did Sam and Kate change over the course of the film? What kind of help did they give their parents?

If you like this, try: “”Kalbuey,” “Laggies,” “Maggie’s Plan,” and “A Little Help”

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Aftersun

Posted on October 27, 2022 at 5:30 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for brief sexual material and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Diversity Issues: Alcohol, scenes in bar
Date Released to Theaters: October 28, 2022
Copyright 2022 A24

Two universal truths are devastatingly sad, even for those lucky enough to have stable, happy families. First, we spend our lives trying to find the sense of complete comfort and security we had in the arms of our parents, or wish we did. Second, except in the most tragic circumstances, we leave our children too soon. Even if they are parents themselves at the end of our lives, it is always too soon, and we are aware of that all the time. We love seeing them become more independent, even as we have the bittersweet understanding that each day they belong less to us and more to themselves.

That is the theme of a small miracle of a first film from writer/director Charlotte Wells. Tennessee Williams described “The Glass Menagerie” as “a memory play.” “Aftersun” is a memory movie, not just a movie about someone’s memory but a movie about memory itself, presented in a flickering, sometimes kaleidoscopic fashion, present mingled with past, layered with understanding and regret.

Most of the story is through the eyes of Sophie (an astonishing performance by Frankie Corio), and it takes place on a vacation she takes with her father, Callum (an excellent Paul Mescal) at a low-end Turkish resort in the 1990s. Some of it is literally through her eyes as she films with a camcorder. And some of it is through a third-party objective camera, but it only sees and understands what she does.

We may understand a little more. Callum has a cast on his arm, and when Sophie asks him about it, he won’t tell her what happened. She asks about a plan he told her about earlier and he says it’s not happening but is vague about what’s next. He tells her about how much time she has to be anything she wants and we wonder, though he is so young he was mistaken for her brother, if he is worried about how much time he has. At one point, we see him sob. Is it because he misses Sophie? Does he still have feelings for her mother? Or is there something more dire pressing on him?

We come to understand that we are not in that moment; we are in Sophie’s mind as she thinks back on it as an adult, seeing what she was not able to understand at the time. This movie is not about what happens next and what happens next. It is not about the lessons learned or the innocence lost on that vacation. It is a tender poem about how we look back on love and loss, pure cinematic storytelling, and one of the best films of the year.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drinking, sexual references and teen kissing.

Family discussion: What wasn’t Calum telling Sophie? How do you know? Was he a good dad? What do we learn from the glimpse of Sophie as an adult?

If you like this, try: “Eighth Grade” and “Lady Bird”

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Ticket to Paradise

Posted on October 20, 2022 at 5:12 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief suggestive material
Profanity: A few strong words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness portrayed as humorous
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, animal bites
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 21, 2022

Copyright Universal 2022
Director/co-writer Ol Parker has taken most of the ingredients from the hit “Mamma Mia” and remixed them, as he did with his sequel, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!” Oscar-winning actors of vast charm and charisma. Screensaver-pretty settings on the shore. Wedding plans for a young couple that the older folks think may be too young. Bringing together people who have not seen each other for a long time and have unfinished business. All of which can be combined for entertainment value. But in this case, “Ticket to Paradise” leaves out the most important element in the success of the “Mamma Mia” films: the music of Swedish singing sensation ABBA. And it leaves out the most important element in the success of any movie: believable characters we want to succeed.

It gets pretty far on the screen chemistry of its two leads and up-and-coming star Kaitlyn Dever (be sure to check her out in “Rosaline,” “Booksmart,” and “Short Term 12”). George Clooney and Julia Roberts play David and Georgia Cotten, battling, bitter exes who divorced 20 years ago, after a five-year marriage and are still so hurt and angry they insist on not being seated together at their daughter’s college graduation. Dever plays their daughter Lily, who loves them both and tries to please them but finds it all exhausting. She is headed to law school, but first she and her BFF Wren (the always-great Billie Lourd, also from “Booksmart”) are off to a vacation in Bali. So basically the rest of the movie takes place in my screensaver, which the characters in the movie credibly keep calling the most beautiful place in the world. There she meets and falls in love with a local seaweed farmer with a great smile (Maxime Bouttier as Gede). And she decides to marry him, even though he lives half a world away from her home in Chicago and she’s only known him a month. Her parents decide they will suspend hostilities long enough to stop the wedding. And they think the best way to do that is to pretend they are on board while they subvert it every way they can. So, basically, “Mamma Mia” plus Roberts’ own “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” But no ABBA music and no Rupert Everett to disguise the fact that it lurches from one dumb situation to another.

Roberts and Clooney do their considerable best, and for those, and there are many, who would pay to hear them read the phone book, this movie will do the trick. But we can see the effort they are putting in to sell material, dialogue and situations, that are just not up to the task. Roberts uses her dazzling smile and endearing laugh (despite costumes designed to make her look dowdy even though she is supposed to be a highly sophisticated art dealer) and Clooney uses his raffish charm, all of which go a long way, just not long enough to withstand the dreariness of a storyline that depends on intended-to-be-hilarious animal bites and intended-to-be-charming insults between exes. It is childish, selfish, and exhausting. Like Lily, we wish we could be half a world away from it, gazing at the sunset from a pristine beach.

Parents should know that this movie has mild peril including a snake bite, some mild sexual references, and a few bad words.

Family discussion: What do we learn from the different versions of David’s proposal we hear from both sides? What will happen to Lily and Gede?

If you like this, try: “Mamma Mia” and its sequel and better Roberts and Clooney movies like “Oceans 11,” “The Runaway Bride,” and “One Fine Day”

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