Over the Moon

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril, sad death of a parent, themes of dealing with grief
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 23, 2020

Copyright 2020 Netflix
“Over the Moon” is a gorgeous, candy-colored fantasy adventure based on a Chinese myth, with an appealing heroine and some sensitive and child-accessible insights about grief and loss.

Fei Fei (sweet-voiced Cathy Ang) lives happily with her adored parents, who run a food cart specializing in mooncakes, a delicacy enjoyed each year at the Mid-Autumn Festival, inspired by the myths of Chang’e, the goddess of the moon. Fei Fei’s father (John Cho as Ba Ba) wants to explain her about the science of the moon but she would rather hear her mother’s stories of Chang’e, who consumed the elixir of immortality and mourns the loss of her mortal beloved, the archer Houyi.

But Fei Fei’s mother becomes ill, and dies (offscreen). Fei Fei and her father share their grief and take care of each other. Four years later, Ba Ba wants Fei Fei to meet a woman he is seeing, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), who has an energetic young son, Chin (Robert G. Chiu). Fei Fei is devastated. She feels that she cannot manage any more change and that bringing another woman into their home would be disloyal to her mother. And she decides that if she could just go to the moon and prove to Ba Ba that the legend of Chang’e’s enduring love is real, he will understand that he should, like Chang’e, be devoted forever to his lost love.

Fortunately, Fei Fei has become a STEM-science and engineering student. And so, she builds a rocket ship. Actually, she builds several model rocket ships which all fail. And then she figures out a way to use something that is going on in her town to power the ship enough to take her and her pet rabbit to the moon in search of Chang’e.

But Chin stows away with his pet frog, throwing off the navigation. Things look dire until two glowing magical lions rescue them and take them to the moon, where they do meet Chang’e, who will not help them until they bring her the “gift’ she needs to reunite with Houyi.

Long-time Disney artist (and son of the “Family Circus” comic panel Bil Keane) Glen Keane brings his experience on films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and “Tangled” to his first film as a director, and we can see the Disney influence in the strong, big-eyed female leads and the Broadway musical-style “I Want” and other character-revealing songs. Chang’e is voiced by “Hamilton” star Phillipa Soo.

There may be a touch of Studio Ghibli inspiration as well, especially when the characters are floating in zero gravity amid a army (that is the collective noun) of giant frogs. The candy colors of the glowing space creatures are like jelly-beans illuminated by LED lights. A highlight of the visuals was the brief hand-drawn images of the Chang’e story.And the faces of the characters are exceptionally expressive, which grounds the story.

Gorgeous images and chases scenes, including one involving giant chickens on motorcycles, make this a visual treat. The Chang’e character is so imperious that it is not easy to appreciate her learning to be better, but a rare storyline for children about grief, and especially about how good feelings and new people in our lives are not disrespectful to those we have lost, gives the film warmth and depth.

Parents should know that this film includes sad (offscreen) deaths including the loss of a parent. There is some mild fantasy-style peril.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Fei Fei want her father to get married again? Why did she change her mind about Chin? What version of Chang’e’s story do you like?

If you like this, try: “Coco” and “Inside Out”

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Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude sexual material including full nude sculptures, some comic violent images, and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic mayhem and violence, characters killed, murders, explosions, some grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020
Copyright Netflix 2020

Will Ferrell, who co-wrote and stars in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” knows that it is impossible to exaggerate the sheer nuttiness of the annual song competition, so he does not even try. He just puts us in the middle of it, almost reassuringly bittersweet in the year of the pandemic, which has canceled the real-life Eurovision for the first time since it began in 1956.

Ferrell plays Lars, an Icelander who has been obsessed with winning the song of the year competition since 1974, when he watched the not-yet-world-conquering ABBA win with “Waterloo.” (Do not think too hard about the math. Or the plot. Or anything else.)

ABBA’s stunning appearance had an even more profound impact on another child in the room, Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), who was mute until “Waterloo” inspired her to speak and sing. Now Lars and Sigrit have formed a duo called Fire Saga, and through a combination of events, including having all of the other Icelandic competitors get blown up, they are Iceland’s representatives in the competition, located this year in Edinburgh.

“Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin keeps things moving briskly, with the highlight of the film a delightfully staged riff-off at a party for the top competitors featuring real Eurovision stars. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) has a blast playing the contest’s flamboyant front-runner, the Russian Alexander Lemtov. Just like the real Eurovision, the musical numbers are wildly over-the-top, with klieg lights, gyrating dancers, and outrageous costumes. I mean, Eurovision makes Las Vegas look like a third grade piano recital.

McAdams does not get to show her comedy skills as she did in “Game Night,” but she is always an enormously appealing performer and provides some balance to the goofiness of the Lars character. If Sigrit believes in him, we do, too. Will there be betrayals? Romantic conflicts? Live performance mishaps? A race to the airport? Is Ferrell getting too old for these boy-man roles? And for playing a romantic interest for Rachel McAdams? Are the songs goofy fun? And what about bringing biscuits to the elves? (Ah, surprised you with that one.) All of that, plus the fun of the only Eurovision songs we’ll get this year make this a treat for the pandemic summer.

Parents should know that this film has strong language, sexual references and sexually explicit statues, comic mayhem including murders with some graphic and disturbing images including a severely injured ghost.

Family discussion: Why was Erik so hard on Lars? Why was it hard for Lars to show his feelings for Sigrid? Which song would you vote for?

If you like this, try: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and watch some of the real-life Eurovision songs on YouTube

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The High Note

Posted on May 25, 2020 at 12:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, and suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 25, 2020

Copyright 2020 Focus
If you find yourself, in what all the commercials are calling “these challenging times” looking for cinematic comfort food, “The High Note” is here, and when I say “here,” I mean coming to you in your home. One of the films switched to streaming as the question of when, how, and whether movie theaters will open remains unsettled, “The High Note” is entertaining without being challenging. If its twist is among the least surprising ever scripted, that itself has its own satisfactions when everything else is so uncertain. It’s a Cinderella tale with (not much of a spoiler alert) a happy ending, in a glamorous setting with beautiful people and some good songs.

Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is personal assistant to a world-famous, if slightly fading singer named Grace Davis, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of a world-famous and never-fading superstar Diana Ross. Grace has not released any new music in many years, but still fills arenas with adoring fans. Her manager (Ice Cube) is urging her to accept a very lucrative residency in Las Vegas. She can stop touring and sing her hits every night for as long as she wants.

No one pays much attention to Maggie, unless Grace needs some green juice or some highly inconvenient errand run. But Maggie loves music and, though Grace does not realize it, Maggie is Grace’s truest fan, the only one around her who sees her as a songwriter and performer and not just as a nostalgia cash cow. Seeing the world of music, even from the edges, inspires Maggie to want to be a producer. She hesitantly disagrees when a successful producer wants to remix one of Grace’s hits by adding synth, with digitally created voices for back-up singers. And when she meets a young singer/songwriter who busks outside of a grocery store (fast-rising star Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Luce” and “Waves”), she tells him she is a producer and persuades him to let her bring him into a recording studio.

So far, so good. But then it veers off the rails. Cinderella without a godmother makeover — fine. “All About Eve” without the ferocious, greedy ambition — also fine. But then we get a wholly unnecessary scheme so preposterous that even Lucy and Ethel would consider idiotic. And Maggie is supposed to be savvy about the music business and supremely competent. The only benefit of this ridiculousness is a lovely scene with Eddie Izzard, who brings such an air of lived-in wisdom that for a moment it almost makes sense. Almost. And the non-surprising surprise is on top of that.

Ross is fun to watch as the diva, especially when she is on stage, the many opportunities she has had to watch from the wings paying off as she brings authentic star quality to her interactions with the audience (for better) and the crew (for not so much better). She’s especially good in a scene where Grace gets real about the prospects for an over-40 woman of color in the music business. Johnson is sadly underused. She has such a rare gift for comedy, glimpsed in “22 Jump Street” and “The Five-Year Engagement” and yet Hollywood keeps casting her as a wide-eyed little mouse. She would have been better cast as the high-spirited roommate (Harrison is the one to watch her, with very bit of the star quality the part or the goofy housekeeper (though Zoë Chao and June Diane Raphael are reliably delightful in those roles). Harrison has all of the star quality his character requires and more, especially impressive given the wide range of his recent appearances.

There are moments when a movie’s predictability is an advantage rather than otherwise. It benefits this film that it is released I such a time, into our homes, where we most appreciate its comforts.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language, some sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and questions of parentage.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Maggie tell David the truth about herself? Which song was your favorite? If you were producing a song, how would you begin?

If you like this, try: “Music and Lyrics” with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant and “Black-is” with Tracee Ellis Ross

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Military Wives

Posted on May 21, 2020 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated, some mature material
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Offscreen wartime violence and peril, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity
Date Released to Theaters: May 22, 2020
Copyright 2020 Bleeker Street

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” Those lines by Milton are a powerful reminder of the quiet struggles of the families left behind when soldiers go to war. “Military Wives” is based on the real-life story of British women who stood and waited while their spouses were fighting in Afghanistan, and came together to form a choir that inspired audiences and led to the creation of choirs on other military bases.

The choir is as much the result of opposing forces as common interests. Kate (a frosty Kristen Scott Thomas) is the wife of one of the base’s commanding officers. He is about to return to duty for the first time since the death of their only son in action. We get a sense of their different ways of grieving — and the way his death has driven them apart — as they talk about a photograph of their son. Should it be left casually on the refrigerator as it was when he was alive or upgraded to a frame and protected by glass?

Lisa (“Catastrophe’s” Sharon Horgan) seems to have been designed to annoy and be annoyed by Kate. She is earthy, unpretentious, and outspoken and just generally messy. She is, in theory, in charge of organizing the morale-boosting base activities for the spouses. But she is not by nature or inclination an organized person. She has a rebellious teenage daughter she can barely manage. And she considers Kate’s “helpful” suggestions snobbish and unrealistic. How much comfort can worried, lonely wives of soldiers get from a knitting club or a film series to explore the auteur theory?

But Lisa cannot dispute Kate’s point that the women “need something to focus on, something to keep them together.” The idea of singing seems to have some appeal. Lisa tentatively agrees but want to keep it casual. “It’s like a drop-in,” she tells the women. “And then you commit,” says Kate. “A lot of fun,” says Lisa. “And uplifting,” says Kate.

They have different ideas about what to sing and how to rehearse. But just as different notes can make beautiful harmonies, the two women find a way to combine forces and even develop some respect for one another. With some bumps along the way. Kate says “it has to be challenging to give them something else to think about.” But it turns out that the challenge is what helps them think about all of it — worry, grief, fear — better.

“It’s like ‘Sister Act’ without the Mafia hit men!” one character says cheerfully. No Mafia hit men, no nuns, but real war, with real casualties, and real pain. The real turning point is when the women bring the people they miss into their performance. And the real highlight is the glimpses we get of the real choir and the others it inspired over the closing credits.

Families should know that this film includes some strong language, teen misbehavior, and sad offscreen war-related injuries and deaths.

Family discussion: Did your sympathies toward the characters shift over the course of the movie? Why? How did characters find different ways to deal with stress?

If you like this, try: “Young at Heart,” a documentary about a choir of elderly singers

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