The Color Purple

Posted on December 24, 2023 at 5:04 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexual content, violence and language
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, attack, character beaten by police
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2023

Copyright Warner Brothers 2023
Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple is the acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Celie, a young Black woman in the rural Georgia of the early 1900s. Through her letters, written to her sister Nettie, we learned the story of her horrific abuse, told in the simple language of someone who had no education and little sense that she deserved better.

The book was made into a dramatic film directed by Stephen Spielberg, with Whoopi Goldberg as Celie and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, who becomes Celie’s step-daughter-in-law. It then became a successful Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, and a book by Marsha Norman. “American Idol” favorite Fantasia Barrino was a replacement Celie and Danielle Brooks played Sofia.

And now it is a movie again, with Barrino and Books repeating their Broadway roles. This version is unexpectedly joyous and heartwarming. That is in large part thanks to director Blitz Bazawule, who shows us the characters’ strengths with the musical numbers before the storyline does. It is also thanks to the raise-the-roof, powerhouse performances from Barrino, Brooks, and Henspn, any one of which would blow the doors of of a theater, and all three together lift our spirits like a gospel choir. Every note is pure and thrilling. Every one is a revelation. Henson has the showiest part and she brings her endless movie star charisma to Shug the performer. But she also brings infinite compassion and gentleness to the intimate moments. Any lesser performer might make us question why someone as flamboyant and apparently hedonistic as Shug would find what no one else in Georgia seems to see in Celie. But Henson makes us understand why she gives Celie two things she has never had before, respect and a sense that she is worthy of love. She makes Shug another character who has made choices for her own survival but maintains a core of warmth.

Brooks is bursting with life force as Sofia, until her insistence on respect from others brings her devastating repercussions from the only white characters we see in the film. We learn from her story about abuse from outside that creates ripple effects in their community. We also see with Mister’s relationship with his father, how abuse is passed on through generations. And, with his son (Corey Hawkins), how healing through generations is also possible.

Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as young Celie and Halle Bailey (“The Little Mermaid”) as the her sister Nettie show us that having one person care is enough to make a difference. Mister throws Nettie out and she leaves with a missionary family for Africa and their separation is more devastating to Celie than her abuse by Mister, again underscoring the critical importance of a sustaining relationship.

The movie is frank about Celie’s abuse, including repeated rape by the man she believes is her father and then by the man her father sells her to, known to her only as Mister. But this version is more about Celie’s growing understanding of her own power, including the power of forgiveness. We also see other characters show resilience, generosity, and remorse. If the conclusion, as in the book and the previous movie, seems to tie things up a little too quickly, by that time we are so happy for Celie and so moved by the music we are fine with it.

Parents should know that this movie includes extreme abuse of a very young woman including rape and battery and having her children taken away. The film also includes misogynistic and racist attacks, a character beat up by police, betrayal, drinking and drunkenness, and strong language.

Family discussion: What are the events that make Celie understand that she could say no and that she deserved better? Why did Shug see more in Celie than anyone else? What made Mister change his mind?

If you like this, try: the book and the Spielberg movie

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Posted on December 14, 2023 at 12:34 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some violence, mild language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Candy with magical properties
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and violence, character bullied and beat up, sad offscreen death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2023

Copyright 2023 Warner Brothers
“Wonka” is the origin story of everyone’s favorite fictional chocolatier, the central figure in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Anyone who ever wondered how Willy Wonka got started, how he developed his incomparably delicious and deliciously magical candies, built a factory, and met the Oompa-Loompas, will find all of that here and more. As we might expect from the people behind the Paddington films, it is brimming with whimsy, charm, and heart, and that is movie magic. The production design, by Nathan Crowley (“Interstellar,” “The Dark Knight”) is wonderfully intricate and tactile, mixing Dickensian touches and Rube Goldberg fancifulness. It just about qualifies as a world of pure imagination.

Timothee Chalet plays the young Wonka, who grew up on a boat with his mother (Sally Hawkins), a brilliant chocolatier who experimented with recipes as they visited exotic locations. As the movie begins, she has died, and he has come to a big European city (touches of London, Paris, and Vienna) to share his chocolates with the world.

Things go badly. His chocolates have people floating on air. Literally. But the three chocolate CEOs who control the market do not want the competition and they bribe a chocolate-loving local cop (Keegan-Michael Key) to keep him from selling his chocolate (yes, families will get a little introduction to cartels and the importance of enforcing antitrust law). And Wonka ignores the advice to read the fine print before signing a contract (more worthwhile legal advice for families) for a night’s stay at a local inn run by the Dickensian-ishly named Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman). It turns out he signed away his services for her laundry, along with an orphan child named Noodle (Calah Lane) and several other colorful characters. He is a prisoner and it looks like he will be stuck for decades.

But Wonka is nothing if not optimistic and enterprising. He has a solution to the problem of the endless piles of laundry that gives him a chance to escape for until Mrs. Scrubbit’s daily check. Noodle becomes his sidekick as he continues to try to create and sell chocolates.

The Wonka in the original book and movie is not a nice person. Children enjoy his wicked streak, taking pleasure in the outrageous consequences for the young visitor who ignore his warnings. And even those who still love the movie are generally in agreement that what happens to Mike, Veruca, and Augustus is pretty drastic. In this film, a character does suffer consequences of his gluttony to an extent that feels like too much for the world they have created. This Wonka is not just younger but sweeter than the one we know. He takes a stand against stealing and faces some consequences for a thoughtless taking of some (but not all) of the candy ingredients he collects.

Chalamet is just right in the role, and he has great chemistry with Hugh Grant(!) as the Oompa-Loompa (with what is probably the only funny joke about economy plus travel in history). Like Paddington, Wonka brings out the best in the people around him, and in the delighted audience, too.

Parents should know that this film has a sad offscreen death of a parent, a child and adults held captive, fantasy-style violence (Wonka’s face pushed into water, bonked on the head), and some mild language.

Family discussion: What makes Willy Wonka good at solving problems? What is your favorite kind of chocolate and what Wonka treat do you wish you could try?

If you like this, try: The Roald Dahl books and the Gene Wilder movie

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Posted on November 21, 2023 at 5:40 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and mild action
Profanity: NOne
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy-style peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2023

Copyright Disney 2023
The animators at Disney, now celebrating their 100th anniversary, have had a lot of time to think about wishing. From Disney’s first feature film, “Snow White,” which had a heroine warbling about the day her prince would come to their second feature film, with the greatest wishing song of all time, the one we still hear every time a Disney movie begins with a view of Cinderella’s castle and “When You Wish Upon a Star,” to all of the princesses singing their wishes — “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” “A Part of His World,” “Once Upon a Dream,” Belle singing she wants more than “this provincial life,” Moana singing about “How Far I’ll Go,” no one’s movies do better at giving us characters with wishes we want to see come true. So there’s no better way to pay tribute to Disney history than “Wish,” a movie about wishes, with loving references to many of their most beloved classics.

Oscar-winner Ariana Dubose provides the voice of Asha, a 17-year-old girl who lives on an island in the Mediterranean Sea with her mother, Sakina (Natasha Rothwell), and grandfather, Sabino (Victor Garber). Like Disney animation, Sabino is reaching his centenary. Like most Disney heroines, she has cute sidekick, a goat named Valentino (Alan Tudyk).

Their island is governed by King Magnifico (Chris Pine). The people of the kingdom believe that he will grant the wishes they share with him when they turn 18. But as Asha finds when she becomes his assistant, he hoards the wishes, which appear in floating translucent spheres. When people turn their wishes over to him, they lose their memory of what it was they aspired to, and they become docile and easily governed.

Asha makes her own wish the old-fashioned way, on a star, just like Geppetto in “Pinocchio.” To her surprise, the star responds by flying down from the sky to help her out, starting with giving Valentino the ability to speak. Asha originally only wanted to make the wishes of her mother and grandfather come true. But she realizes that she has to give all of the wishes back to the people who wished them. In addition to the star and the goat, she gets some help from her seven friends, who adorably match up with the seven dwarfs from Disney’s first feature. One Is sleepy, one is grumpy, one is bashful…you get the rest. The “Doc” character is Asha’s best friend Dahlia, the King’s chef, voiced by Jennifer Kumiyama. To honor the actress, who uses a wheelchair, Dahlia uses a cane, welcome representation for audience members who use adaptive equipment and their families, and welcome normalization for those who may not yet have those people in their lives.

The character design here is understated by contemporary animation standards, perhaps another nod to the classical era. The backgrounds and settings are pure Disney magic, though, delicately colored, stunningly beautiful, and bursting with imagination. Asha’s home and Magnifico’s castle are fairy tale delights. The musical numbers are lovely and the one with dancing chickens is a highlight.

And the story is well designed, exciting and heartwarming. It has a gentle but skillful exploration of the meaning of wishes, how they help us imagine what is most significant to us and think about how to get there, and about the importance of finding our own way to make our dreams come true and support the dreams of those around us. Asha is an endearing heroine, unsure about herself but always sure about what is right. When key characters switch loyalties at meaningful moments, as the king becomes more ruthless, it underscores the importance of values as well as aspirations — just as we would hope as Disney starts on its next century as the gold standard in family movies.

NOTE: Stay ALL the way to the end of the credits for a sweet extra snippet.

Parents should know that this film has a mean, selfish villain who attacks people with sometimes-scary green lightning. There is a reference, as in most Disney films, to a parent who died.

Family discussion: What is your wish? What did the king mean by “safe” and was he right? How many references to other Disney movies did you catch?

If you like this, try: the other animated Disney classics like “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Frozen,” “Mulan,” and “Encanto” and the live-action fairy tale, “Stardust”

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The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Posted on November 16, 2023 at 5:45 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for largely bloodless child death and disturbing content
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic peril and violence including teens murdering teens. Characters are shot, impaled, poisoned, bitten by snakes, and hung.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2023
Copyright Sony 2023

The Hunger Games prequel is a villain origin story. The popular trilogy centered on rebel Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), in a dystopic world ruled by Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Author Suzanne Collins was flipping channels one night and saw both sports events and news footage of the Iraq War. This inspired her idea of a future society where entertainment — and the fundamentals of a totalitarian society — rest on a television show with teenagers competing to the death like gladiators. The grotesquery of the competition is reflected in a perverted concept of the selection process as patriotic and the young competitors paraded in glamorous attire before the “games” begin.

Collins has said she was drawn to “the idea of an unjust war developing into a just war because of greed, xenophobia and longstanding hatreds.” With this new installment, we get a better look at how that happens, on both a structural level and a personal one. Young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), whose name harks back to the title character in a Shakespearean tragedy about a general who is a hero in battle but becomes resentful that he is not honored enough by his community and then loses his own honor. As this story begins, he is a senior at the country’s prestigious school, barely scraping by with his grandmother (Fionnula Flannagan) and cousin who is like a sister (Hunter Schafer as Tigris). He does his best to keep up appearances as he hopes to win the school’s lucrative top prize for academic achievement. But there is an announcement — the prize has been canceled. The games, in the 10th year and much less elaborate than the ones we know from the original trilogy, are losing their audience. And so the candidates for the prize will each be assigned a games contestant to “mentor.” The contestant who does best — that means “spectacle, not survival.” The mentor who wins will be the one whose contestant gets the most support from the audience.

At this point, Coriolanus is devoted to his family and a loyal friend. He meets his assigned contestant, Lucy Gray (“West Side Story’s” Rachel Zegler) and quickly shifts from wanting her to be spectacle to wanting her to survive. Lucy is the songbird of the title, a roots-style singer with spirit and a strong sense of community.

The “games” are nowhere near as flamboyantly extravagant as the ones we have seen in the earlier films, and it is intriguing to see the foreshadowing and origins of the familiar elements. Jason Schwartzman as oily weatherman/magician/emcee Lucky Flickerman is not as outrageous as Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket, but we can see the origins of the gulf between the “entertainment” and lethal in the tone of the events. Coriolanus himself is responsible for coming up with some of the most significant elements of the later games. Viola Davis has a lot of fun as mad, gene-splicing, snake-loving scientist Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Ms. Collins is quite the name-giver!) and Peter Dinklage shows us the terrible compromises of the school’s Dean, (another bonkers name) Casca Highbottom.

Fans of the series and the book will appreciate this faithful version, but others may find the relentless butchery outweighs the lessons about morality, trust, and resilience, leaving open the question of whether lethal gladiator games, even by proxy, are inevitably seen as entertainment.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and graphic violence including many murders with teenagers attacking other teenagers and military attacking civilians. Characters are shot, impaled, poisoned, bitten by snakes, and hung. The MPA’s “largely bloodless” rating is an inadequate description of the images, many of which are graphic and disturbing.

Family questions: Were there any indications in the early scenes that Coriolanus might turn out the way he did? Was he trustworthy? Why did he record Sejanus? What made Lucy Gray change her mind?

If you like this, try: the other “Hunger Games” movies and the books

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Theater Camp

Posted on July 13, 2023 at 5:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language, suggestive material, and /drug references
Profanity: Some strong anguage
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 14, 2023

Copyright Searchlight 2023
“Theater Camp” is a true labor of love from people who are former theater kids. They love the children who somehow know from birth that they were born to be performers, and seem to bypass the world of Raffi, JoJo, pop, and rock but know all of the songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Stephen Sondheim by the time when they’re still collecting from the tooth fairy.

Molly Gordon (“Broken Hearts Gallery”), Ben Platt (“Dear Evan Hanson” and “Pitch Perfect”), Noah Galvin (“The Real O’Neals”) and Nick Lieberman clearly know and love the world of theater kids, so the humor is pointed but affectionate. The passion for performance in both the kids and the adults who teach them is sometimes over the top, but the film is clear that it is these special people who can “turn cardboard into gold.” And at the heart of the film is what someone says near the end: theater camp is a place for people who are not accepted anyplace else.

The camp is called AdirondACTS and it is owned by Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sederis) and managed by Rita Cohen (Caroline Aaron of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). They are good at scrambling to get enough campers and enough money to keep it going (“I know he’s awful and tone deaf but his father is rich”) until Joan has a seizure at a grade school production of “Bye Bye Birdie” (one of the film’s weakest ideas). She is in a coma and so her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) has to take over. He as very much not a theater kid and he is not a business guy, either. The snooty rich kid camp sees this as an opportunity, and their representative (Patti Harrison) makes an offer to take it over.

The camp teachers include alumnae Amos (Tony winner Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), whose ultra-close friendship is getting claustrophobic. Each year, they create an original musical for the campers to put on, and this year it will be “Joan, Still,” a tribute to the camp founder. There are also other productions, including a junior version of “The Crucible.” And there is an exhausted tech (a terrific Noah Galvin) and a teacher assigned to cover everything from masks to stage combat even though she has no idea about any of it and lied on her resume (a game Ayo Edebiri).

The film gently points at the pretensions and dysfunctions in the world of theater kids and adults, but it reminds us that they really do turn cardboard into gold throughout, especially with a final musical number that is at the same time rousing, hilarious, and heartwarming.

Parents should know that this movie has some strong language, a drug reference involving children, and some mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Why did Amos call himself a performer working full-time as a teacher? Why didn’t Rebecca-Diane tell him what she was doing? What is the best part of being in a show?

If you like this, try: “Camp,” “Magic Camp,” and “Waiting for Guffman”

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