The One and Only Ivan

Posted on August 20, 2020 at 10:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: PG
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Offscreen--critically ill mother, parent of a character killed by poachers, sad death of a beloved character
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 21, 2020

Copyright 2020 Disney
There was a real Ivan, and he was a silverback gorilla who was adopted by a family and then, at age 3 when he was too big to live in a home, he became an attraction at a shopping mall, kept indoors in a cage for 27 years. Community protests in 1997 led to his being transferred to a zoo, where he has acres to roam. His story inspired a children’s book by Katherine Applegate, and now a movie streaming on DisneyPlus, produced by Angelina Jolie.

In the film, Bryan Cranston plays Mack, the ringmaster, owner, and only human performer in a tiny circus located in a run-down shopping mall. Ivan, voiced with warmth and feeling by Sam Rockwell, is the star of the show, though his only “trick” is pretending to be fierce. The other animals include a high-strung seal, an elegant French poodle (Helen Mirren), a baseball-playing chicken (Chaka Khan), and the kind and wise elephant named Stella, voiced by Jolie. A stray dog (Danny DeVito) hangs out with them when he can escape the not-very-watchful eye of the watchman. He is dubbed Bob by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of the animal keeper/custodian/lighting guy and all-around handyman (Ramon Rodriguez as George). Julia’s mother is critically ill, so she spends much of her time sitting near Ivan’s cage and drawing pictures.

Ticket sales are poor and the circus is losing money. So Mack buys a baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by “The Florida Project’s” Brooklynn Prince) to generate some excitement. The other animals welcome her, especially Stella, though Ivan is a little jealous when she becomes the headliner.

Julia encourages Ivan to use her crayons and he begins to create some art. Mack makes that a part of the show. But it becomes clear that this is not a story about saving the circus. It is a story about saving the animals.

That transition is an awkward tonal shift with some very sad developments and memories and an abrupt conclusion. Cranston does as well as possible acting opposite CGI characters but there is not much he can do to make Mack into a three-dimensional person. We sympathize with him until…we don’t? Even the most photoreal CGI with supreme skill, create with an extraordinarily meticulous understanding of movement and weight leaves us more impressed than engaged. Just because you can do something does not mean you should. Rockwell’s voice was so compelling that I occasionally closed my eyes; his voice conjured Ivan more vividly than the technology did.

Parents should know that this film includes the critical illness of a child’s mother, the shooting of Ivan’s father (both off-camera) and the very sad death of one of the animals. There is some peril and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What are things you can’t remember and things you don’t want to remember? Why does Ruby like stories and what does she learn from them?

If you like this, try: “Madagascar” and “Free Willy”

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The King of Staten Island

Posted on June 11, 2020 at 3:13 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence, fires, sad death, suicide attempt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 12, 2020

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures
Here we go again. Another too-long Judd Apatow movie about an arrested development, failure to launch man-child we are expected to find far more endearing than we do. “The King of Staten Island” shares these essential ingredients with earlier films like “The 40-year-old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” and one more: the main character played by a charismatic comedian or comic actor. In Apatow’s earlier films, those actors have included Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and Seth Rogen. This time, it is stand-up comedian and SNL cast member Pete Davidson.

But there are a couple of significant differences between the sunny sensibility of those glossy Hollywood confections and “The King of Staten Island,” with the significance of its setting reflected in the title. It’s not sunny. It’s dingy and gritty, with the help of superb cinematography from Robert Elswit, and very little music on the soundtrack. And the reasons that the main character is stuck in a perpetual directionless funk of helplessness, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, self-harm, numbness, and weed, are darker, much darker because we know the story is semi-autobiographical.

Normally, I might describe a film like this as the co-writer/star working through some issues (as, say, in Shia LeBoeuf’s “Honey Boy,” where he played his own abusive father). But it is not clear that Pete Davidson is working through much here, except to the extent he is re-enacting some of what has happened to him. Davidson is currently living at home with his mother, as we see (literally) in his appearances, some with her, in the videos he shoots for the pandemic-era SNL episodes. Davidson was seven when his fireman father was killed on 9/11. In this film, his character’s name is Scott, after his real-life father, to whom the film is dedicated. Scott’s father, also named Scott, was a fireman who died trying to rescue someone. As the film begins, Scott’s sister (played by Apatow’s daughter Maude) is leaving for college. And his mother (Marisa Tomei, in another wonderfully warm and radiant performance), 17 years after his father’s death, is beginning to date someone new, also a fireman (Bill Burr). Seeing the people closest to him taking chances, moving on, and accepting responsibility are deeply unsettling. But what he is most threatened by is allowing himself to feel the feeling he has numbed with weed, denial, and tattoos that are more like self-mutilation, mortification of the flesh, and self-inflicted pain to reduce feelings of worthlessness than aesthetics or self-expression. He says he wants to be a tattoo artist and practices on his friends (and briefly on a child). He says his dream is to have a combined restaurant/tattoo parlor. What he really wants to do is erase himself.

Davidson is an exceptionally appealing performer, and it is clear he is trying to blend art and life here, using the film itself to become more vulnerable and more present. But there is a reason one of the most frequent characters he plays on SNL (other than himself) is a teenager whose only reaction is a shrug. He is still operating within a pretty narrow range, in contrast to Tomei and Burr, and Pamela Adlon, who briefly appears as a bitter ex-wife, all excellent. Making the most of an even briefer appearance is Steve Buscemi, a real-life fireman playing one on screen.

There are touching moments, and some scenes have a satisfyingly authentic impact, especially those with a group of guys showing their ride or die support for each other by ragging each other mercilessly, an Apatow speciality. It could have been half an hour longer, first by cutting the weird scenes where restaurant waiters and bus staff literally fight for tips. But we keep rooting for Scott, and especially for Pete.

Parents should know that this movie includes constant very strong, explicit, and crude language, sexual references and situations, alcohol and drugs, including the use of both to numb pain, risky and foolish behavior, including a possible suicide attempt, criminal activity, a gun, and discussions of the death of a parent and divorce.

Family discussion: Why did Scott and his sister respond to the loss of their father differently? Why was it so difficult for Scott when he mother dated another fireman? What made him decide to change?

If you like this, try: Pete Davidson’s stand-up special, “Alive from New York”

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Newsies the Musical on Disney Plus!

Posted on April 17, 2020 at 8:00 am

First it was a movie with a young Christian Bale that never found an audience. Then it became something of a hit on video. Then it was a Broadway  musical. And now that musical is available on Disney Plus.

And of course you can watch the original, too.

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The Last Full Measure

Posted on January 23, 2020 at 5:41 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, medication
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic and disturbing images of wartime violence, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 24, 2020

Copyright 2019 Roadside Attractions
The story of the exceptional valor of Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, and the story of the thirty-year effort by the men he saved to see that he received recognition with a posthumus Medal of Honor are plenty dramatic, so it really wasn’t necessary to ramp it up with fictional details about a cover-up. And even an AARP A-list in the cast, including Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, John Savage, Amy Madigan, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Fonda, each with a chance at a bravura star turn, cannot match the clips over the final credits of the real-life veterans who would not quit until his valor was acknowledged. He ie one of only three Air Force enlisted men to be awarded the Medal of Honor in military history.

So a documentary about what really happened would have been better. Instead we have a diligent, well-intentioned, if overheated story that is as much about the (fictional) Defense Department staffer who was assigned to investigate the application for the Medal of Honor, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), and the lessons he learned from contact with the honor and courage of Pitsenbarger, his parents (Plummer and Ladd), and the humble but insistent men who would not quit.

The movie goes back and forth between 1966 Vietnam and 1995 Washington DC. In Vietnam, Pitsenbarger was an Air Force pararescueman, not in a combat company himself but part of a team that evacuated wounded soldiers via helicopter. In one of of the bloodiest days of the war (meaning highest US casualty count), when the Americans were being slaughtered, he rescued wounded men at great risk to his own life and then picked up a gun and fought alongside them, until he was shot and killed. These scenes are extremely violent and graphic and often hard to follow, especially since there is no effort to make the younger versions of the characters played by Fonda, Harris, Jackson, and Savage look or sound like their counterparts.

In 1995 Washington, DC, Huffman (a fictional character) is an ambitious Defense Department civilian bureaucrat with a young son and a pregnant wife (neither of whom serve any function in the story except to be adorable and supportive, with one brief pep talk. His career is in jeopardy when the political appointee who serves as Secretary of the Air Force (Linus Roache) announces that he is resigning (and yet somehow still in the job what looks like a year later at the award ceremony but okay). And when he is assigned to develop a record for the medal application, including interviewing eye witnesses and tracking down mysteriously missing paperwork.

None of this is true (and by the way, the wives of the veterans whose lives were saved also played a significant part in getting the medal), but it makes for good drama, giving each of the venerable co-stars a moment suitable for a lifetime achievement clip real. They fall at different points on the range of PTSD, but all of them end up confessing and achieving some kind of catharsis. It is poignant to see the clearly ailing Peter Fonda in his last role as the most fragile of the group. And it is a little bit surreal to see John Savage of “The Deer Hunter” back in Vietnam 42 years later. Not the “Kurtz-ian burnout smoking ganja under a bohdi tree” that Huffman imagined but someone who found peace by bringing peace to others. Ladd’s monologue about sending her teenage son to war is also a highlight, and a welcome reminder that when we say no to sending our children into battle it just means we are sending someone else’s children in their place.

It is artificial and awkward. but thankfully it does not try to make the purpose of Pitsenbarger’s story into a life lesson for a fictional civilian. A moving award ceremony at the end reminds that the purpose of any hero’s story is to give a life lesson to us.

Parensts should know that this movie includes scenes of the Vietnam war with very graphic wartime violence and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, strong language, and smoking.

Family discussion: How did Scott change as he spoke to the veterans? What did he learn about listening from Kepper? What kind of medal would you like to earn?

If you like this, try: “Hacksaw Ridge” and “We Were Soldiers”

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Lucy in the Sky

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:34 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and threats of violence, gun
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019

In 2007 a female astronaut furiously jealous because the male astronaut she was sleeping with was also sleeping with someone else, drove from Texas to Florida with the intention of attacking the other woman. “Lucy in the Sky” tells us it is inspired by a true story, and while it draws some of its details from what really happened, there is very little inspiration evident on screen.

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, who has made up for the chaos and dysfunction of her family by being competitive and ultra-capable. Her mother drank, her father was a deadbeat, her brother is an irresponsible single dad who disappears now and then, leaving his teenage daughter with Lucy and her husband (Dan Stevens). Lucy is intensely competitive, always keeping her eye on triumphing over whatever challenge is next. “You’ll just have to work harder,” the grandmother who raised her (Ellen Burstyn) advises, and we can tell that is her standard advice. She has succeeded at everything because she refuses to stop until she does.

We first see her floating in space. Ordered to return to the ship, she insists on a little more time to absorb the vastness of the universe. (With “Ad Astra,” this is the second film in a month to show us a personal and existential crisis in outer space.)

On her return, Lucy is in that most mundane of ordinary tasks, waiting in the carpool lane to pick up her niece at school. She has a routine debriefing with a counselor (Nick Offerman) who gently asks her whether the experience was disturbing. He quotes Apollo 11’s Michael Collins, who wept as he piloted the rocket behind the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic landing. He was “consumed by darkness” and said he was profoundly alone. “It’s hard to put into words,” Lucy says. But she liked it and wants to go back.

He urges her to take a break. “Can you stop?” But she only knows how to achieve mission objectives. Without a fixed mission, her mind starts spinning.

And then, another astronaut invites her to go bowling with others in “the club” — those who have looked at Earth from outer space and have had their perspective permanently changed. He is Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), recently separated and a bit of a mess, unlike Lucy’s stable, sweet, hand-holding-grace-before-meals husband (Dan Stevens). They have an affair. And then things spin out of control. And so does the movie.

There might be an intriguing story here about how seeing things from a — literally — broader perspective could make someone rethink choices and priorities or how the pressure of being perfect can stem from deep insecurities which can cause distortion and collapse. This film touches on all of that but we keep being distracted by Portman’s efforts at a cornpone accent, some camera tricks with the aspect ratio of the frame, and shifts in tone. The actors do their considerable best, but at times they seem to be acting in different movies. The overly cutesy idea of naming the character Lucy so that The Beatles song can play on the soundtrack is jarring and out of place.

The story could have made a pretty good Lifetime television film, a soapy melodrama starring some third-tier actors. Instead, it is an awkward, wildly uneven film that shoots for the stars — quite literally — and falls far short.

Parents should know that this film include very strong language, some peril and threats of violence, sexual references and a brief explicit situation.

Family discussion: Why was Lucy so different from her parents and brother? How did being in space affect her? What did it mean to be “in the club?”

If you like this, try: “Ad Astra” and “The Martian”

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