Sing 2

Posted on December 22, 2021 at 11:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude material, mild peril/violence
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: Some humor about a disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 28, 2022

Copyright 2021 Illumination
This sequel wisely jettisons the less interesting plot lines from the original, the backstories of the animals with dreams of singing before cheering audiences, in favor of what worked best the first time, the performances themselves. “Sing 2” is all about putting on a show, and it begins with a smashing version of Prince’s “Let’s go Crazy.” There’s a lot happening, but take a moment to notice the costumes worn by the performers. They were created by high fashion house Rodarte.

Koala impressario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) has a bigger dream than ever. He wants to take his performers to the entertainment capital of the world, Redshore City, with its enormous and ultra-glamorous theater, the Crystal Tower. It is run by Mr. Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a tough-talking wolf who only agrees to let them put on their show if they can promise to deliver the lion rock star-turned recluse Clay Calloway (Bono). Moon promises that he will, though he has no idea where Calloway is or how to persuade him to return to performing. There’s a bigger problem. He has the performers, including porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), pig and mother of innumerable piglets Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), and shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly). But despite what they promised Mr. Crystal, they do not have a show, only a concept from Gunter (Nick Kroll) of a space opera titled “Out of this World.” They don’t have enough information to tell the crew what kind of sets to build except that it is set on four different planets and there is a spaceship.

All of which sets up various shenanigans as the little group tries to keep Mr. Crystal from finding out what is going on as they track down Clay Calloway and get the show ready. There are some additional complicating factors. Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha wants to be in the show even though her acting is terrible (she can sing, though; she is voiced by pop star Halsey), and her daddy thinks she should have whatever she wants. Johnny cannot learn the complicated moves from the choreographer. Meena’s new co-star is an arrogant Yak (Eric André), who intimidates her. The ice cream guy, though, has her bashful heart fluttering.

All of this is done with heart and humor that will delight young audiences while the parents will get a kick out of the eclectic mix of songs, from Grammy-winning favorites to esoteric Indies and even a little Prokofiev. The audition scene is like a lightning round of Name That Tune. Bono’s rumble makes a great vocal contribution as Clay, and the poignance of his grief gives the story greater heft. There’s even a new U2 song on the soundtrack to underscore in both senses of the word) the way that music can heal and connect. It adds to the ebullience of the film, and like all great music, inspires calls for an encore.

Parents should know that there is some cartoon-style peril and threats of violence and some mild humor about a character’s disability, in addition to some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which character is your favorite? What musical show would you like to create? What is Porsha good at?

If you like this, try: the first “Sing” and the Trolls movies.

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West Side Story (2021)

Posted on December 9, 2021 at 5:33 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, references to drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Gang violence, knives, gun, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 10, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 21, 2022

Why remake a 60-year-old movie that won ten Oscars and is still beloved, even while admitting its shortcomings and its being quaintly out of date on some of the issues it raises? Because Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have taken the best from the original and made the essence of the story even more powerful and meaningful. “West Side Story,” the original itself a remake of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” itself a reworking of an Italian story that had at least three different versions before Romeo compared Juliet to the sun and Juliet asked what there was in a name. The themes of love, loss, fear, and anger will always inspire our stories, and the incomparable music by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by then then-25-year-old Stephen Sondheim, are as thrilling as ever in this new version.

Maybe there will be another remake 60 years from now, but it is hard to imagine it being better than this one. Spielberg’s gift for visual story-telling, with brilliant cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, production design from Adam Stockhausen, and editing by Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn match and enhance the muscular electricity of the Bernstein score. There are star-making performances from the entire cast, especially Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rachel Zegler as Maria. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita 60 years ago, all but steals the movie as Valentina, a new role, replacing Doc, the owner of the convenience store. In this version, she is his widow, their own marriage a symbol of what Tony and Maria aspire to.

Copyright 20th Century 2021

Kushner’s changes are subtle and judicious, making the story deeper and more urgent. The opening shots show us that the turf battle has already been lost. The wrecking ball is knocking everything down. The only home the Jets have ever known is being torn down “for slum clearance” to make way for a gentrification project that will include a high-end high-rise and the high-culture Lincoln Center for performing arts. When Anita sings in “America” about some day living in an apartment with a terrace, she is standing near a sign showing the glamorous building that will replace the town-down tenements.

The setting looks like a bombed-out war zone. This makes the the emotion more vivid and the stakes more concrete (in both senses of the word). When “West Side Story” was first written, juvenile delinquents were listed by a majority of Americans as one of their most important concerns, next to atomic weapons. In order to make the concerns of the gangs as visceral today, Kushner shows us why Riff and the Jets feel that everything is being taken from them. The detective tells them that all the white people in the community who were smart enough to get out are gone. They are, he says, “the last of the can’t make it out Caucasians.”

Everything that gave them a sense of power, belonging, and control (“little boy, you’re a man, little man, you’re a king”) is being reduced to rubble and replaced with spaces that would be alien to them even if they could afford them. There is dust everywhere, and everything is washed out, knocked down, and covered with grit. The Jets cannot fight City Hall. All they have left is their fury and what they use to assuage it — the feeling of brotherhood. They sing of the Jets as a family (“you’ve got brothers around; you’re a family man”) while Tony says he envies the Puerto Ricans’ strong, committed biological families. There is no one to take it out on but the newcomers who are even lower on the social hierarchy than they are, the Puerto Ricans. Riff says, “I wake up to everything I knew being sold or wrecked or being taken away by someone I don’t like.”

Their gang, the Sharks, is fueled by resentment at being treated like second-class Americans in their own country. And they, too, are worried about losing their sense of family. They want the opportunities available to white, native English-speaking Americans but they want to remain intact, insular, restricting their associations to those they can trust. Their internal conflict is shown in “America,” where the girls sing of what they can do and buy and the boys jeer at them for ignoring the bigotry they will face — while not being willing to go back to Puerto Rico.

Some changes reflect our more sensitive understanding of the very issues the original depicted. In this version, the Latinx characters are played by Latinx performers of different skin tones and no one wears brownface make-up. All of the performers do their own singing. In addition, the Spanish dialogue is not subtitled. Some gender/sexuality insults remain in the script but the character once derisively called “Anybody’s,” who we might now call non-binary, is portrayed with more depth. The dance numbers are less balletic, more a reflection of the energy of emotions the characters are feeling.

Kushner’s changes to the script are sometimes subtle but every one adds to the emotion and revelation of character. In this version, Tony has even more reason to be reconsidering his commitment to the Jets, and he has an example in Valentina, his employer and friend, of what is possible. The “Cool” song has much more of an impact here, sung by Tony to Riff when he discovers that Riff has bought a gun. “I Feel Pretty,” instead of a bridal shop, is sung in a department store, where Maria is an after-hours cleaner. The dance through the aspirational scenes of mannequins “enjoying” middle class life parallels the reference to the apartment with a terrace. And Tony takes Maria to see The Cloisters, a beautiful cathedral-like setting for “One Hand, One Heart” that evokes the timelessness of Romeo and Juliet.

This story is very much of its time but its themes, too, are timeless, and with this new version we can experience it with the deeper understanding of its themes, a new generation of performers making it as new to us as it is to them, and one nod to the past with Moreno reminding us that like the late Bernstein and Sondheim, brilliance is always forever renewing itself.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language with some racist terms, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, drinking, smoking, references to drugs, and gang violence, with knives and a gun. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: If the story took place today, who would be in the gangs and how would it be different? What do we learn from the “Office Krupke” song? Why do Riff and Tony see things differently? What advice would you give to Tony and Maria?

If you like this, try: the original 1961 film, “In the Heights,” the wonderful documentary about Rita Moreno, and “Romeo and Juliet”

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Encanto

Posted on November 23, 2021 at 5:27 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 24, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 7, 2022

Copyright Disney 2021
We all feel that way at times. It seems like everyone has something special except for us. “Encanto,” the new animated film from Disney captures that imposter phenomenon with a story set in Columbia about a girl who is the only one in her family with no magical powers. It is colorful and exciting and funny and warm-hearted and, something harder to find, it is also wise.

As we learn in one of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s bright, energetic songs early in the film, Mirabel (sweetly voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) loves her family and is very proud that her mother has healing powers and her aunt has superstrength. Other family members can understand animals, predict the future, or shape-shift. Mirabel’s sister’s superpower just seems to be perfection.

The Madrigal family has a rich, storied history. When her grandparents were young, they fled their home. Her grandfather was killed by the people they were trying to escape. But her grandmother, clutching her baby, was blessed with the powers to help her community survive. A generation later, the family is the center of that now-settled community, living in a home with its own magical powers and personality. That house, communicating with flipping floor tiles and steps that slip into slides and creating dazzling new rooms to recognize each family member’s powers, is one of the movie’s highlights.

The family has a ceremony when each member receives his or her magical powers. But for some reason, Mirabel’s never arrived. She even wears glasses (the first Disney lead character to do so) to show just how ordinary and relatable she is.

Unexpectedly, the magic the family has counted on and taken pride in — and taken for granted — seems to begin to be dissolving. And that is when the girl who does not think she is special begins to understand that she, and only she, has the qualities the family needs to keep them together.

That means adventure. It also means learning some lessons about how even the most loving, high-performing, and functional families have to deal with secrets and sometimes painful and scary truths. This insight is gently but thoughtfully explored, understanding that sometimes it is especially difficult to be honest with happy families for fear of letting the others down. But when family policy is “We don’t talk about Bruno,” it is time for someone to ask why. And when we do not leave room for family members to be less than perfect, it is time to tell them it is okay if they make mistakes and in fact if they don’t, it’s a good idea to tell them to make some. Families will enjoy “Encanto” but what may be more meaningful are the conversations we have afterward.

NOTE: Before the film there is an animated short called “Far from the Tree,” a gorgeously animated story about animal mothers and the curious babies they try to keep safe.

Parents should know that this movie includes some fantasy peril and some difficult family struggles.

Family discussion: Which magical power would you like to have? Why did one family member hide? How do you honor a miracle?

If you like this, try: “Brave,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and “Moana”

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Dear Evan Hansen

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: The PG-13 rating is for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language

Copyright Universal 2021
Adapting a play for the screen is always a challenge, especially when the play is hugely successful because fans are attached to elements of the play that might not work on screen. It is even more of a challenge when the play is a musical. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a multiple award-winning Broadway musical about a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression who impulsively tells a lie to comfort a grieving family. Its transition to film is uneven, sometimes clumsy, sometimes frustrating. One important change improves the original. One important decision not to change weakens the film. And it is too long.

The title comes from a letter high school senior Evan Hansen writes to himself on the advice of his therapist. Hansen is played by Ben Platt, who won a Tony award for his performance in the Broadway, turns 28 this week, and there has been a lot of commentary about whether he is too old to play a teenager. Probably, but the actors were too old to play teenagers in “Grease,” too. The bigger problem is that his performance does not translate completely to screen. He is far more effective as a singer than an actor here. In part that may be due to excessive deference to the performance that has been lauded for years on stage. In part, though, it is attributable to the inherent weakness of the material. The character is written as not much more than a collection of symptoms, longings, and frustrations, and the cinematic storytelling that literally takes us up close and very personal exposes the superficiality of some of the material.

Evan carries his pep talk of a letter to himself to school, where he is alternately ignored or harassed. There is Zoe, a girl he wishes he could figure out how to talk to (25-year-old Kaitlyn Dever). There is a classmate who has to be a little bit nice to him because they are related (Nik Dodani as Jared). There is the girl who seems to have it all together (the radiant Amandla Stenberg as Alana). And there is Zoe’s brother, a troubled, hostile classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan), who misinterprets Evan’s clumsy efforts to be friendly as insulting, and snatches the letter from him in retaliation.

Connor takes his own life. His shattered parents find the letter and think Connor was sending it to Evan, evidence that he had a close friend. Desperate to hold onto any comfort, they beg Evan to tell them about his relationship with Connor. He simply does not have the communication skills to tell them the truth and so he not only pretends that the letter was written by Connor, he makes up a series of stories about their close friendship and what a comfort Connor was to him. He tells Zoe, who is resentful of the trauma Connor’s mental illness inflicted on the family, that Connor cared deeply about her. His ability to comfort Connor’s family perversely gives him a sense of confidence and connection that does more to reduce his anxiety than medication or therapy. Instead of his overworked single mother (Julianne Moore), he spends time with Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), and Zoe, almost accepted as one of their family.

But this cannot continue. I give director Stephen Chbosky (“Wonder”) and writer Steven Levenson, who adapted his script for the play, credit for correcting one of the play’s biggest weaknesses and allowing Evan to more fully accept the consequences of his lies. And I give them a lot of credit for making it clear that one way for Evan to begin to find healing for his own issues is to recognize the vulnerabilities of others. Alana’s honesty in reaching out to him is one of the film’s most powerful moments, and Stenberg once again shows us that she is past promising and already one of the screen’s most accomplished and appealing performers. Dever, also, continues to be a actor of unusual precision in expressing the most subtle and complex emotions. Ryan makes a strong impression, especially in the imagined scenes as Evan makes up stories about him.

It mitigates but does not eliminate the disconnect between the play’s expectation that we will sympathize with Evan more than we do. And I do not think any movie has ever successfully persuaded audiences that what they portray as viral would in the surreal world of social media, actually go viral. But the movie’s message about recognizing the vulnerability of everyone and the importance on empathy for others as a part of growing our own sense of agency, capability, and worthiness is important enough to make up for the uneven pacing and the way that the performances of the younger actors at time seem to be in different movies.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of mental illness and (offscreen) teen suicide, brief strong language, and some suggestive references.

Family discussion: Reconsider some of the people whose behavior you have thought annoying or difficult to understand in light of this movie. How can you be more supportive of the vulnerable people around you?

If you like this, try: “Wonder” by the same director

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Respect

Posted on August 12, 2021 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcohol abuse, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic abuse, scuffles, sad death of a parent, murder of Martin Luther King
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021

Copyright MGM 2021
Let’s stipulate two incontrovertible truths: First, as dazzling as Jennifer Hudson is, she is not the once-to-a-planet gift that was Aretha Franklin, whose songs are so deeply embedded in our collective unconscious that we cannot help but hear it in our head and accept no substitutes. Long past her prime but every inch a diva of raise-the-rafters soul singing, the clip over the credits of Franklin singing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to songwriter Carole King (Franklin won her own Honor 21 years before), is breathtakingly thrilling. We see her bringing King and President Obama to tears, and I expect most will see that through their own.

Second, there are a lot of movies, many fact-based, with the theme: good woman, great songs, bad, bad men. For example: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Piaf,” “Judy,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “The US vs. Billie Holiday”/”Lady Sings the Blues,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “A Song is Born,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It is a challenge to make that story new, especially after the take-down of the inevitable cliches of singer biopics that is the excellent “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

Despite these obstacles and a 2 1/2 hour running time, the Aretha Franklin story simply titled “Respect” is absorbing and entertaining. Hudson may not sing Aretha’s songs as well as she did, but the Oscar she got for her very first movie role in “Dreamgirls” was an accurate assessment of her acting skills and screen charisma. Director Liesel Tommy and writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri have skillfully shaped a complex, even epic story to skip over many relationships and crises to focus on two key themes, the songs and their depiction of Franklin’s evolving voice, first in music, then in activism, then on her own behalf, and finally and most fulfillingly, to connect to God.

We first see her as a young girl, living with her father (Forest Whitaker), a prominent preacher, her grandmother (Kimberly Scott), and her sisters and brother. She is used to being awakened to sing at her father’s parties, which include prominent activists and performers. Her parents are divorced and she wishes she could spend more time with her adored mother (Audra McDonald), but overall she is happy and secure. In a wonderful scene, her mother gets her to express her feelings by singing them.

And then two cataclysmic events literally strike her silent. She is molested and gives birth to a son at age 12 and another one two years later. And her mother died.

Music is what literally gives her voice back to her. She sings, and that leads her first to tour churches with her father and then to make her first record deal, with a label that wants her to be a jazz singer. She marries Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who is threatened by anyone she wants to work with and hits her. She works with Martin Luther King. And then she starts to get the hits she has wanted.

Hudson is never less than dazzling and the film manages to give a sense of the scope of the story without getting caught up in details like the husband it just skips over. The film is ultimately, yes, respectful, just as Miss Franklin hoped.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse and child molestation, sexual references and non-explicit situations, substance abuse, very strong and racist language, and some violence.

Family discussion: Who treated Aretha Franklin well? Why were hits so important to her? What made her able to start standing up for herself?

If you like this, try: “Amazing Grace,” the documentary we see being filmed at the end of this movie, the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” and of course listen to Ms. Franklin’s music

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