Lily Topples the World

Posted on September 1, 2021 at 4:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to the stresses of international adoption
Diversity Issues: A theme of he movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2021

Copyright 2021 Discovery+
Sometimes everything comes down to a struggle between order and chaos. Lily Hevesh’s constructions made of dominoes are both, in the tradition of Tibetan monks making intricate sand Mandelas and then wiping them away, or artist Andy Goldsworthy making art from ice knowing it will melt. She spends hours, even days assembling her dominos so that the audience, in person or through her popular YouTube channel, can watch them fall down. This film gives us a chance to see the story behind the scenes of her colorful kinetic creations, with over a billion views, and to ponder all of the elements that make the assembly of thousands of dominoes the place where she feels safest and most herself.

Lily Hevesh was born in China and made available for adoption there, likely due to the country’s one-child policy. Her mother tells us she had some abandonment issues as a young child. When she was very young, she discovered a deep love for creating extended, complex designs with dominoes, and then knocking them down. When she arrived at Rensselaer Polytechnic institute as a freshman, no one knew that she was an internationally renowned “domino artist,” and the only one at the top level who was female. Her nom de domino is Hevesh5, the five standing for her family, her parents and two siblings.

This documentary follows Hevesh as she makes the difficult decision to drop out of college to follow her dream and as that dream unfolds, not with the precision and predictability of what she calls “beautifully intricate chain reactions.” But that’s the difference between dominos and dreams. Hevesh’s biggest dream is to have her own line of brightly colored plastic dominoes that meet her exacting specifications for better stability, texture, and satisfying clink when they get knocked over.

There really is something mesmerizing about watching hundreds of thousands of precisely placed plastic pieces fall down. And Hevesh’s designs are undeniably works of both art and engineering, some of them including Rube Goldberg-style contraptions. Her work comes to the attention of social media and Hollywood, and we see a gigantic installation she does for Jimmy Fallon and her red carpet appearance for “Collateral Beauty,” where she created an on-screen domino set-up for star Will Smith. (In an interview with me, the screenwriter for that film compared the dominoes to Buddhist mandalas.)

Director Jeremy Workman is unobtrusive, letting Lily tell her own story, letting her show us her passion, dedication, and vulnerability. Her work is stunning. But the more important message of the film is that each of us should find something that inspires and centers us as much as dominoes do for Hevesh5.

Parents should know that this film includes discussion of international adoption and the impact it has on a child who might feel abandoned. We also see Lily Hevesh dealing with stress.

Family discussion: Why do you think Lily loves dominoes so much? Which is your favorite of her installations? Why do people like to see them fall down?

If you like this, try: Lily Hevesh’s videos on YouTube — and try to make your own build and collapse installation.

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Black Widow

Posted on July 5, 2021 at 4:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 Some Language|Intense Violence/Action|Thematic Material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, references to torture and abuse of children, characters are assassins, chases, explosions, guns
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2021

Copyright 2021 Marvel Studios
We’ve waited a long time to find out how Natasha became the Black Widow. While we got to know the male Avengers through individual origin stories about Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man, Natasha was different. We first saw the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tied to a chair looking very much the victim as she was confronted by some vetough and powerful-looking men. But we learn, as they do, that she is very much in control of the situation. We also learn that unlike the other Avengers, she has no special powers from a radioactive spider-bite or government potion, some fancy equipment, or being born a god. She has her wits and courage and some of what Liam Neeson might call a very special set of skills. Through the Avengers films we saw that she was the heart of the group, kind, empathetic, willing to sacrifice herself out of a sense of integrity and, perhaps, redemption.

We wanted to know more. But it took time to persuade Marvel Studios, and then, just as we were all ready to get Natasha a film of her own, its release was delayed in the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic, so it was not until now, a year later, that it is finally here. Even with all that has gone on, “Black Widow” quickly puts us back in the world of the Avengers. And, it continues Marvel’s cleverest strategy, allowing each character to inhabit a world that is distinctive in tone and atmosphere as it maintains a clear, strong central sense of its world.

Who could have guessed that we would find Natasha in 1995 Ohio? But that is where we start, a young girl with blue hair (Ever Anderson, a believable young Johansson) riding her bicycle home at dinner time. She greets her younger sister affectionately, and then, when the littler girl hurts her knee, their mother, like mothers since mothers began, kisses it to make it better. But this mother does something a little different. She tells her daughters that pain makes you stronger. And then what seems like a typical suburban family dinner turns out more than a little different. The father comes home and tells the family something they have clearly prepared for has happened and they have to leave right away. And they do leave, the house and the country, in an exciting, if improbably escape. We will soon learn that this may not meet any traditional definition of “family” at all. Indeed, questions about what is family and what we need from families is as central to this film as the chases, fights, exotic locations, and fight scenes.

We skip ahead 21 years from that wild escape. Natasha is living off the grid following the “divorce” of the Avengers. She is considered an enemy following the assassination of King T’Chaka of Wakanda in “Captain America: Civil War.” But a package from Yelena (Florence Pugh) brings her back into the fight. Starting with a fight with Yelena herself, one of the film’s highlights. The scenes with the two of them crackle and bolster hope that the rumors of a Yelena affiliation with the Avengers.

Director Cate Shortland balances the action scenes — a prison break is a highlight — with family moments that are sometimes very funny (wait for Yelena on The Pose, and David Harbour as Natasha’s closest equivalent to a “good father”) and sometimes touching (Rachel Weisz as the mother equivalent, a pig-experimenting scientist who takes time to add a dramatic smokey eye when she dons a jumpsuit for action).

And of course there is a powerful adversary with a high-tech lair and a private army that holds the key to Natasha’s persona. It tells you all you need to know that those scenes are fine, but will likely leave you waiting a little impatiently for the next moments with the family, reminding us again that family may be frustrating, may even be dysfunctional, but those we are born into and those we choose are still where home is.

Parents should know that as with all superhero movies, this included extended peril and action, which characters injured and killed. There is some strong language and references to forced sterilization.

Family discussion: Why did Natasha take a different path than other people around her? Is there a key to unlocking fear?

If you like this, try: the Avengers movies and some of Johansson’s other films like “Jojo Rabbit,” “Her,” and “Hail, Ceasar”

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Misbehaviour

Posted on September 24, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Scuffles
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 25, 2020

Copyright Pathe 2020
Let’s start with a little context. In 1970, when “Misbehaviour” takes place, my high school hosted two events, a father-son dinner with a presentation by our Congressman, later Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and a mother-daughter dinner with a presentation by a representative from a cosmetic company with an update on the latest looks and products for sale. No one raised any objections. This was at the very beginning of what was being called the women’s liberation movement. Two years before, protesters staged an event near the Miss America pageant (the urban legend is that they burned bras, but in reality they threw bras, girdles, false eyelashes, and other symbols into a garbage can). “Misbehaviour” (note British spelling) is the story of a 1970 protest, endearingly mild by today’s standards, at the London-based Miss World competition.

Miss World is the oldest televised international beauty pageant, founded by TV host Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and first broadcast in 1959. So it began just as the tumult of the 1960’s was about to happen, and an all-white beauty pageant with a master of ceremonies making jokes like “I care about women’s feelings; I like feeling women” was very shortly going to be something of a target for protests from the increasingly vocal protesters about racial and gender equality. That collision is already the subject of a documentary, “Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam,” and it is now a feature film, with Keira Knightley as a single mother working on a history degree, Jessie Buckley as an activist, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a contestant. Also: Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope, the man who made the joke about feeling women.

Production designer Cristina Casali evocatively creates the earth-toned era of the early 1970’s and writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe bring a nuanced and empathetic approach to the story and the real-life characters, heartwarmingly glimpsed with updates over the final credits. Knightley plays Sally Alexander, who explains to a clearly disapproving admissions committee in the film’s opening scenes that she is divorced and has a child but promises that if she is admitted she will be able to keep up with her classes. She believes in women’s rights but her view is to achieve equality by getting “a seat at the table.” Jo Robinson (Buckley) is a radical who spray-paints protest slogans and lives in a commune. She wants more than a seat at the table; she wants to knock it over and stomp it to smithereens.

Change is already underway at the pageant. The threat of protests over yet another white contestant from South Africa, still operating under apartheid, leads Morley to insist on two candidates. So Miss South Africa is the white contestant, and there is a black contestant with the title Miss Africa South. There is another Black contestant as well, Miss Ghana (Mbatha-Raw).

And there is Bob Hope, who accepts the emcee job as he flirts with his new teen-aged secretary, breaking a promise to his wife, Dolores (another exquisitely delicate performance by Lesley Manville). He does more than joke about feeling women, and the last time he hosted the show, he brought the winner back to LA with him.

Sally becomes less moderate as her advisor tells her that her proposal to study women is too “niche” and she sees her young daughter prance around in imitation of the beauty queens. And so she and Jo come up with a plan to disrupt the pageant.

Director Philippa Lowthorpe skillfully balances all of the different stories and themes. In one (apparently fictional) meeting between Sally and the winner of the competition, we see that the images that bothered Sally when her daughter was imitating them could be seen by some young girls in marginalized communities as opening up opportunities for them to think of themselves as beautiful and powerful. On the other hand, this was a competition where the measurements of each contestant were announced as she walked across the stage and they were all lined up in bathing suits and turned around so the audience at home and in the theater could closely examine their rear views. And their rears.

Americans are likely to wonder what might happen in the US if protesters used water pistols. But in England, where even police don’t carry guns, the response is as low-key as the protest. That leaves breathing space for us to consider all of the experiences that went into the protest and what it represented to the women involved, including, in a lovely moment, Dolores Hope.

Oh, and, ten years later, Miss World rebranded itself as “Beauty with a Purpose.”

Parents should know that the subjects of this movie include racism and sexism. There is some mild language and sexist humor, and there are some scuffles during the protest.

Family discussion: Do you watch beauty pageants? How have they changed over the years?

If you like this, try: “Pride,” the true story of gay activists who supported the miner’s strike in Thatcher-era Britain and “Made in Dagenham,” the true story of women striking for equal pay in 1968

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Mulan (Live Action 2020)

Posted on September 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended battle sequences, fights, swords, explosions, falling
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020
Copyright Disney 2020

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is closer to director Niki Caro’s touching, both mythic and intimate “Whale Rider” than it is to the animated musical with Eddie Murphy as a quippy little dragon and Donny Osmond as a Chinese warrior.

Coming to us on DisneyPLus (for an extra $30) due to the pandemic, it gives us just a fraction — literally — of the grand vistas and meticulous framing Caro uses so beautifully in the film. This version of the classic story of a young woman who pretends to be male to join the military and saves the day with a brilliant strategic maneuver is more sober, ambitious, and grand in scope than the first version. Note that some of the characters and names are changed to further remove it from the original. And it is the first of the Disney live-action remakes of animated classics to get a PG-13 rating.

The movie recalls “Frozen” at the beginning, with two sisters, one with some special, almost magical skills. The young Mulan (Crystal Rao) shows determination and remarkable agility and skill as she chases down a runaway chicken with parkour-style acrobatics. Her father (Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou), is proud of the “qi” (life force) in her. But her mother knows that in their world the responsibility of the women is to attract a propitious husband. That does not require strong q. It is about modesty, decorum, and silence, almost the ability to disappear except when needed. Even Mulan’s father tells her that it is time to hide her qi so she can bring honor to the family.

Invaders come to China, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), with the help of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li). Every family has to supply a warrior for the military. To protect her father, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a young man and joins up with the soldiers who are in training. She quickly volunteers to cover night watch to avoid the group showers. And she begins to prove herself with skill and determination.

Then comes the battle, the revelation of her true identity, and then another chance to save the day when she realizes that Bori plans to attack the emperor (Jet Li).

Director of Photography Mandy Walker shows us breathtaking vistas (New Zealand standing in for China in much of the film) and stunningly staged battles. The scenes in Mulan’s village are colorful but gritty enough to be authentically rural. And the production design is everything we expect from Disney, meticulously researched and gorgeously imagined.

The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential qi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. They are on opposite sides, but they recognize all they have in common. As in the original film, we see the literal constrictions and distortions in the clothing and makeup Mulan must put on to meet with the matchmaker. She is far more comfortable in the armor of a warrior.

Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her qi.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with battle scenes, swords, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is chi and how do you access it? Why did the matchmaker and the warriors have such limited ideas about women?

If you like this, try; the original “Mulan” and live-action remakes “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” along with Chinese films for older audiences like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

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Late Night

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to deaths of parent and co-worker, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios
“Late Night” is a festival favorite written by and starring Mindy Kaling, who created just the right role for herself as an Indian-American woman who gets her dream job as a comedy writer, working for a tyrannical late night talk show host played by Emma Thompson. Kaling, who has often talked about her love for romantic comedies played a character in her television series who imagined herself as the heroine of one (understanding them only on the most superficial and self-involved level), has created what is in essence a rom-com about a work relationship between two women, one hopelessly optimistic, one relentlessly cynical.

Kaling plays Molly, a quality control specialist in a chemical plant who gets a one in a million shot at the job by winning an essay competition. Katherine (Thompson) has just imperiously ordered her long-suffering producer (Denis O’Hare) to add a woman to the all-male, all-white writing staff, so he gives Molly a chance. What the writers do not know is that the new head of the network (Amy Ryan), who likes to talk about “four-quadrant” audiences (males and females over and under 25 years old) and ROI (return on investment), thinks Katherine, despite her multiple Emmys and other awards, has become out of date and out of touch with her audience. Ratings are down, and Katherine is unlikely to boost them as long as she insists on having guests like Senator Diane Feinstein and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Katherine demands “excellence” from everyone around her, and that means total dedication. Her manner is abrupt and imperious and she fires staff like she’s the Queen of Hearts calling “Off with their heads!” She refuses to capitulate to what she considers the dumbing down of the media (and the world). When her producer persuades her to have a viral YouTube star who makes videos of her sniffing her dog’s butt on the show, the withering contempt she cannot hide alienates her shrinking audience further. She is pushed onto social media, but her first joke about Twitter bombs, perhaps because she calls it “Twittah” but also because she has not taken the time to understand what it is.

There are just two things she cares about, her husband (John Lithgow), who is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and her show. Both are being taken from her, and she does not have the resources to respond.

Katherine literally does not know the names of her writers, many of whom have never even met her. She has no interest in learning their names, and when she finally sits down in the writers’ room, she assigns them all numbers.

Kaling, who was both writer and actress on the US version of “The Office,” has a good feeling for the “He Man Women Haters”-Our Gang-style dynamics of the all-male writer’s room. They are so used to having no women around that they use the ladies’ room. And her being there doesn’t stop them. At first, she brings her quality control perspective, analyzing what’s missing from the show, until one of the writers gives her some good advice: write something.

Kaling has said that (until “Wrinkle in Time”) every part she has had is one she has had to create for herself. Her strength as a writer is giving us characters who are three-dimensional, vivid, and smart. Both Molly and Katherine filter Kaling’s experiences and perspective in writing for television, the relentlessness of sifting through jokes to put together a polished monologue of perfectly crafted comedy only to have to start over again the next day, the treacherous balancing act between giving enough of yourself to connect with the audience while keeping enough private to keep your sanity and sustain relationships, the even more treacherous challenge of staying on top while people who are every bit as ambitious try to topple you.

She shortchanges Molly a bit here, particularly when she lets herself get hurt by someone her character would be instantly wary of. We get the sense that it is the Katherine character who interests her more, and it gives Thompson one of her all-time best roles. In the first half, she effortlessly tosses off Katherine’s most devastating take-downs, a woman who insists on excellence in a world that does not seem to want it. But in the second half, when Katherine has to be unsure and vulnerable, Thompson gives a performance of exquisite depth and precision. “I hope I have earned the privilege of your time,” Katherine tells her audience. Kaling and Thompson make the privilege ours.

Parents should know that this film includes substantial strong language, sexual references, some potty humor, smoking, and infidelity.

Family discussion: Would you have hired Molly? Why didn’t Katherine change sooner? What was Katherine’s funniest joke?

If you like this, try: “Dancing in September” and “The Mindy Project” and “Larry Sanders Show” television series

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