Think Like a Dog

Posted on June 10, 2020 at 8:26 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude and suggestive material
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Low-key peril, chase scenes, marital estrangement
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2020
Copyright 2020 Lionsgate

As the title “Think Like a Dog” suggests, this family friendly fantasy from writer/director Gil Junger is a welcome throwback to Disney live-action fantasy classics like “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.” A very likable Gabriel Batemen plays Oliver, a young science whiz who invents a contraption that allows him to hear what his beloved dog Henry is thinking. As he tries to figure out a way to talk to the girl he has a crush on and remind his parents how much they care about each other, Henry helps with support and advice. Meanwhile, there are adults who are very interested in Gabriel’s technology, including a charismatic high-tech billionaire and the US government.

Oliver’s parents, Lukas (Josh Duhamel) and Ellen (Megan Fox), are devoted to him but are having a hard time communicating with each other. They do their best to hide from Oliver that they are considering a separation. Oliver is so busy with his invention for the school’s science fair that he does not notice. With the help of a friend half a world away in China (Neo Hooo as Xiao), he figures out a way to access a government satellite to get the signal he needs to make it work.

The special guest at the science fair is a charismatic Silicon Valley superstar known as Mr. Mills, played by Kunal Nayyar, as a very different kind of super-brianiac than the one he played on “The Big Bang Theory.” Oliver wants to make a good impression on Mr. Mills and on his crush, Sophie (Madison Horcher), but his demonstration fails. Disconsolate back at home, he is comforted by Henry, and then accidentally discovers that his contraption actually works — on Henry!

As Mr. Mills tries to steal Oliver’s invention and government agents try to track down whoever is hacking the satellite, Henry advises him on talking to Sophie and gently urges him to pay attention to his parents so he can help them remember to pay attention to each other.

There’s a lot more going on here, including a school play (Oliver plays Romeo!) and a bully, and some of Henry’s canine friends and rivals. Writer/director Gil Junger keeps things moving briskly, with just the right balance of action, humor, and heart.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of parents considering a separation, and may need to talk to children about how it is not always possible to resolve differences and stay together — and not the responsibility of children to keep them together. They may also want to talk about cybersecurity. This film includes some schoolyard language, potty humor, and some chases and mild peril.

Family discussion: If you could hear your pet’s thoughts, what do you think they would be? Whose thoughts would you like to hear? Who would you like to hear your thoughts? Why did Mr. Mills want the device? Why is Henry so confident?

If you like this, try: “Clockstoppers,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “A Dog’s Way Home” And read my interview with dog trainer Sarah Clifford.

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The Willoughbys

Posted on April 22, 2020 at 4:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 20, 2020
Copyright 2020 Netflix

There are oh so many stories for children about orphans and about people who are sent to live in creepy, mysterious old houses. The Willoughbys, based on the book by Lois Lowry, tweaks those and some of the other conventions of children’s stories, and turns some of them upside down. But one key element remains the same: children have an adventure. They are brave, they solve problems, they stick together, and they end up better off than they started. And all of that happens in a movie that is a a delight for the eyes, with wildly imaginative settings and clever details. There’s even a candy factory that’s half Willy Wonka and half Pac-Man.

Deliciously gruesome (but not quite as much as A Series of Unfortunate Events), it is the story of four red-headed siblings who live in a gothic mansion squeezed between skyscrapers, with acid narration from a nearby cat (Rickey Gervais).

The Willoughbys have lived there for generations and their history hangs heavily over them. Literally. There are huge portraits of ancestors, all sporting the thick yarn hair scowling down at today’s Willoughbys.

Also scowling, when they bother to notice them, are the Willoughby parents (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski), who devote all of their affection and attention to each other and can barely be bothered to notice that they have children, much less talk to them or feed them. The oldest is Tim (Will Forte, who worked with director Kris Pearns on “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2”). Then there’s his sister Jane who loves to sing (Canadian pop star Alessia Cara). By the time the twin boys were born, the Willoughby parents couldn’t be bothered to think of two names or provide them with two sweaters. So they are both called Barnaby and share one sweater between them.

In a conventional story of an intolerable home, you might expect the children to run away. But this is a story that likes to turn things upside down. Tim likes the house and is determined to uphold the grandeur he associates with the ancestors and the Willoughby name.  He and Jane come up with an idea: their parents should run away from home. So they arrange an extended trip for their parents, a trip that just might include some dangerous activities.

What they don’t expect is that their parents might send a nanny (Maya Rudolph, delightfully whacky).  Never having been treated with kindness, Tim does not trust her at first. Also, there is an orphan baby left on their front stoop. The children drop her off at a candy factory run by a a man who looks a little foreboding but also like he’s made of candy named Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews).

And so the Willoughby children end up going on an adventure that is colorful,  funny, exciting, and satisfyingly heartwarming. The government’s child protective services are unnecessarily demonized but the message of resilience that we can create the families we want if nature gets it wrong the first time is very welcome.

Parents should know that this movie includes comic peril and violence (no one hurt) and humorously portrayed child neglect and abandonment themes.

Family discussion:  How do Tim and Jane have different ideas about the way to solve their problems? Did you ever misunderstand someone’s words as Tim did with the nanny?

If you like this, try: “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

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Onward

Posted on March 4, 2020 at 5:19 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence, theme of loss
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Copyright Pixar 2020
Arthur C. Clarke, the sci-fi author who wrote 2001, famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At the beginning of Pixar’s new animated fantasy, “Onward” we see what happens when a world of wizards, elves, incantations, and — in both senses of the word — charms changes when technology takes over. It may be more satisfyingly magical to use a spell to bring light to darkness, but it can never be as convenient. And so, in this community, most of the inhabitants have given up magic to live in a way that to us seems almost normal. Even if our two main characters here are blue elves, teenage boy elves, so with the pointy ears and all, but also with the usual angst of adolescence, plus the extra longing that comes from never having known their father.

The younger one is Ian (voice of “Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland), timid, anxious, and just turning 16. His older brother is Barley (“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Chris Pratt), more of a bro-type, way into fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons, and enjoying a gap year before whatever he will get around to eventually. They live with their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who tells Ian there is a special birthday present waiting for him, a message from his father. Now that Ian is 16, he may be able to use his father’s “visitation spell” to bring him back for just one day. Ian is overwhelmed, nervous, and very excited.

Those are not ideal conditions for first-time magic, so things do not go exactly as wished. Dad is only half there, literally. Not as in a see-through ghost, as in up to the waist. Shoes, socks, khaki pants, and a belt. In order to get the rest of him, Ian and Barley will have to go on a good, old-fashioned magic quest, one that will resonate especially with fans of fantasy games, both IRL and digital. And like all heroic journeys, they will be tested in ways they could never have imagined, learn lessons they could never have known enough to ask the right questions for, and strengthen bonds they did not know they had.

If you are familiar with fantasy lore, whether in games or fiction, you will enjoy many references and details. If you are not, you will find out just how much fun and satisfaction there is in a world where every element is up for re-imagining. What would a fantasy world stop sign say? What would an elf have a a pet? You’ll find out. What is the same is as much fun as what is different. The community’s reflections of its mingled magic and technology history plays out with Pixar’s always-delicious whimsy and future viewers on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming will want to hit pause to examine the settings in detail.

Like all of the best fantasy, we learn more about our own world through the way the Pixar crowd re-imagines it. One of my favorite settings will be especially entertaining to families who eat out at “family-style” restaurants. This one is run by the Manticore, a sort of winged bear with bison horns and a scorpion tail-type beast with the voice of Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.

The highlight of the film is the parallel heroic journey taken by the Manticore and Laurel, who deserve a movie of their own. In most stories, the mom’s job is to say “Be careful” and then bake brownies to welcome the boys back home, or to mess things up and have to be rescued. Not here.

There are other welcome surprises as well, not just in the adventures and characters along the way, but in the way it gets (and does not get) resolved. And, because this is Pixar, you’re going to cry when it happens, and hug your family a little bit harder, too.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of of loss of a parent, sibling conflict, as well as fantasy peril and action, and some monsters.

Family discussion: If there’s someone in your life you miss, what would you ask them or say to them? Which is better, magic or technology? Is there a mighty warrior inside of you?

If you like this, try: “Yellow Submarine” and “Finding Nemo”

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Downhill

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual material
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, tense family confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Copyright 2019 Searchlight
It’s a movie about marital dysfunction on a family ski trip. So, “Downhill,” get it? Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, are the screenwriters of “The Descendants” and writer/directors of “The Way Way Back.” The key element that made those films remarkable was a blending of wry humor with heart-breaking family tensions and conflicts. But here, co-scripting with Jesse Armstrong (“In the Loop”), that is where it fails. Both elements are present, but the film and its performers never seem to know which part they are in.

Perhaps one problem is in the casting and marketing of the film, with two of the most beloved comic actors of all time creating an expectation that we are there to laugh at them. Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are equally good in serious roles, but having them in a film that tries to make us laugh at their struggles and feel sympathetic to them or at least recognize something of ourselves in them is more than even the most adept performers can manage. It does not help that the trailer makes it seem like an outright comedy, so the audience arrives with expectations that make it difficult to locate the movie’s tone.

It is based on the Cannes-jury prize winning Swedish film “Force Majeure.” The name is a legal term meaning a supervening event that makes it impossible to fulfill a contract, like a catastrophic storm. In this version, it is an American family with two sons who arrive at an Austrian ski resort for a family vacation. Peter (Will Ferrell), is still mourning his father who died eight months earlier and is questioning his own life, whether he is missing something he might never find time to have or do. Billie (Julie Louis-Dreyfus) is a lawyer looking forward to quality family time and her husband’s undivided attention. The opening scene (also in the original) is reminiscent of “Ordinary People,” making clear the family’s inability to get together for a photograph, demonstrating the deepening divide between the way they want to appear and the way they are.

On their second day at the resort, a controlled avalanche on one of the mountains briefly looks as though it will cover the balcony cafe where the family is eating. In that split second, instead of protecting his family, Peter grabs his cell phone and runs for cover. Billie and the boys are badly shaken but say nothing at first. As the vacation continues, Billie’s feelings: abandonment, anger, contempt, bubble up, revealed in ways that range from passive aggressive to micro-aggressive to outright, pull out all the stops aggressive.

Louis-Dreyfus, who also produced, navigates this range of moods with extraordinary sensitivity as Billie struggles to do what is best for her sons’ sense of security and respect for their father and her fury, fear, and frustration with Peter first for his cowardly, selfish act and then for denying it and trying to blame her for talking about it. It all erupts into a painful and humiliating series of accusations and denials in front of Zach, one of Peter’s colleagues from work (Zach Woods) and his free-spirited new girlfriend (Zoe Chao). There is an intriguing idea there about what Peter hope to appear or be for Zach and why, but instead of exploring it we get Miranda Otto in the thankless role of a resort liaison whose job seems to be welcoming guests with the very definition of sexual TMI. The same goes for brief flirtations with flirtation by both Billie and Peter. Yes, middle-aged people sometimes wonder where their youth has gone and long to be seen as new and desirable. That point has been made much better many, many times.

Even with a brief running time and deft performances, the movie never settles on a tone or perspective.

Parents should know that this movie includes some peril and extended family dysfunction, tension, and arguments. There are very explicit sexual references and a situation and a reference to drugs.

Family discussion: Why did Billie want her sons to see Peter do something good? What would you do if you were faced with Peter’s decision? How do you know? Why was it hard for him to tell the truth?

If you like this, try: the original film, “Force Majeure” and “Carnage”

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The Photograph

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:22 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 11, 2020
Copyright 2019 Universal

Of all the reasons to see a movie, there is none better than this: two gorgeous, immeasurably magnetic and talented actors falling in love on screen. And so, the universe (and Universal) have given us a luscious valentine of a movie, Issa Rae and Lakieth Stanfield starring in “The Photograph,” the kind of romantic drama audiences keep complaining they don’t make any more. From the steamy moments with a storm outside the window to an Al Green LP to flirtatious banter about the relative merits of Kendrick Lamar and Drake, the swoony romanticism is captivating all the way to the last moment.

Rae (who also co-produced) plays Mae, an art curator mourning the recent death of her mother, Cristina (Chanté Adams), a talented photographer who was, as she describes herself in a video interview, better at taking pictures than at love. Rae is sorting through her mother’s things, assembling a retrospective exhibit of her work. And she is sorting through her feelings about her mother, already complicated, with additional complications coming from a letter to “my Mae” she left behind. Cynthia’s instructions were for Mae to read the letter before delivering a second sealed letter to her father.

Stanfield, always a most thoughtful and charismatic actor, plays Michael, a reporter who happens on Cristina’s photos when he interviews a man who knew her before she left him and her home in Louisiana for a career in New York. He meets Mae when he is researching a story about Cynthia’s life. Stanfield played the break-up boyfriend in the popular Netflix films “Someone Great” and “The Incredible Jessica James,” (along with memorable appearances in “Short Term 12,” “Atlanta,” and “Sorry to Bother You””). He gets to be the romantic lead here, and his performance beautifully conveys his character’s confidence and vulnerability, and his immediate connection to Mae.

Both Mae and Michael are hurting from recent break-ups. And Michael has applied for a job in London, so that makes it difficult to start a new relationship in New York. But as always, the real obstacle to romance is the struggle between the yearning for intimacy, for truly knowing and being known, and the fear of exactly that. It may be lonely to be single, but it is safe, or it feels that way. “I’m comfortable” being unhappy and jaded, one of them says.

We go back in time from the present-day story of Mae and Michael to see the story of young Cristina and Isaac (Rob Morgan in present day, Y’lan Noel of “Insecure” in the past). They have a strong connection, but he is rooted in Louisiana and she has ambitions that can only be realized in New York. We see Cynthia’s conflicted relationship with her own mother (a terrific Marsha Stephanie Blake). We see her resolve, even after her heart is broken when she learns she cannot expect Isaac to wait for her forever.

But the heart of the film is the romance between Mae and Michael, with a suitably gorgeous score by Robert Glasper and lush cinematography by Mark Schwartzbard. I have complained in the past about the failure to light the skin of black performers correctly, especially when there are white performers in the same scene. Schwartzbard lights them beautifully, bringing out all of the rich, golden tones of their skin. Interestingly, most of the photos taken by Cynthia that we see are black and white, striking images, but all in shades of gray. We’re told she hated having her own picture taken, but we see one, taken by Isaac, tellingly a bit out of focus. And we see her take one self-portrait, holding then-four-year-old Mae in the Louisiana house she shared with her own mother. But we never see the image. Instead, we see them ourselves, through Schwartzbard’s beautiful cinematography.

Lil Rel Howery provides (as usual) some warm humor as Michael’s brother, with the always-wonderful Teyonah Parris as his wife, and up and coming star Kelvin Harrison Jr. is excellent in a small role as an intern in Michael’s office. Along with Chelsea Peretti as Michael’s boss and Courtney B. Vance as her sympathetic father, the cast gives the central characters the context of a larger world, where we see them as real people of accomplishment and confidence who have to learn how that fits with the vulnerability of allowing themselves to need and be needed in a romantic relationship.

“The Photograph” is a beautiful story, beautifully told, filled with heart and wise about love.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and a situation, issues of paternity, sad deaths of parents, drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why couldn’t Christine tell her daughter the truth? What would you ask someone to get an idea of who they are?

If you like this, try: “Beyond the Lights,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Love Jones,” and “Something New”

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