Abominable

Posted on September 26, 2019 at 5:03 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 27, 2019

Copyright 2019 Dreamworks/Pearl
I’m not sure what the fascination is with animated films for kids about mythical big furry primates, but “Abominable” is the third animated film in a year about the animal we call the Yeti or Sasquatch or Bigfoot. If you’re only going to see one, I’d suggest “Smallfoot” or “Missing Link,” but “Abominable” is good, too. It is not as imaginative visually or narratively as the others, but it is a nice family film with some lovely visuals and appealing characters.

Yi (Chloe Bennet) lives with her mother and grandmother, who worry about her because she has become distant and uncommunicative since the death of her father. She leaves the apartment most of the day, won’t eat dinner with her family, and refuses to play the violin for her mother. They do not know that she spends time in a makeshift tent she has set up on the roof of her building and plays her father’s violin.

At the same time a yeti has escaped from a facility owned by the very wealthy Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), an elderly rare animal collector who has been looking for a yeti since he glimpsed them as a young man. No one believed him then and he has never gotten over the humiliation of being laughed at. He wants to be able to prove that he was telling the truth. He has a small army of SWAT-team-like security guards and he has hired an animal specialist named Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson) to assist him.

When the Yeti lands on Yi’s rooftop retreat, she realizes quickly that he (apparently a he) is not scary; he just wants to go home, which he identifies by pointing to a billboard image of Mount Everest. So, Yi dubs him Everest, and soon she is on her way to take him there, accompanied by her neighbors, the selfie-taking, keep-my-kicks-immaculate Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and his neglected young basketball-loving cousin Peng (Albert Tsai). On the way to Everest with Everest, as they try to evade Burnish and Zara and overcome the obstacles of the terrain, they will learn a lot about themselves and each other, and appreciate what they left behind.

The Chinese settings, both urban and rural, add a lot of visual interest and it is satisfying to watch Yi find something outside herself to care for, and see how that helps her process her grief and start to reach out to others. Jin’s realization of his superficiality and selfishness is more formulaic and Peng, Everest, and Burnish are one-dimensional, well, maybe one and a half. The action scenes are dynamic, especially the use of drones, and nicely balance the tension with the humor, as the group is chased by giant blueberries and wafting on a giant dandelion. But the storyline, soundtrack songs, and lessons learned are predictable — Yi watches koi fish swimming upstream and is inspired to be persistent, and, like Dorothy, Yi learns that there’s no place like home. These are unquestionably good lessons, but they have been and will be taught with more imagination and less formula in the future.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon-style action and peril, grief over death of a parent, and brief potty/bodily function humor.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Yi want to be home with her family? Why did Burnish change his mind? What does the word “abominable” mean? What would you do if you met Everest?

If you like this, try: the “Madagascar” movies and “Smallfoot”

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Ad Astra

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some startling and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019

Copyright 20th Century Fox
James Gray, the writer/director of Lost City of Z. has given us another story of a father and son who leave women behind to explore unknown territory. “Lost City of Z” was based on the true story of Percy Fawcett, who traveled through South America in search of the legendary city of gold, inspiring a generation of adventurers. In “Ad Astra” (“to the stars”) an astronaut goes to the farthest reaches of the solar system in search of answers that range from the most cosmic and existential to the most deeply wrenching and personal.

In both films, Gray is better with the settings than the characters and better with the characters than the storyline. And Brad Pitt’s acting is better than every other part of the film.

The look and sound of “Ad Astra” is spectacular. It creates a completely believable, fully-imagined near-future look and feel of an era of space travel and planetary colonization. It is difficult in a sci-fi movie not to want to show off the coolness of the technology, and make the most of the extrapolations of our time into the worst (or occasionally best) possible outcomes, for example, Earth destroyed by human failings or hubris. But this film makes its imagined future all the more believable by making it fit seamlessly into a world that seems just minutes from where we are now. So of course there will be bomb-sniffing dogs in the rocket hanger; just because we develop the technology for routine travel to outer space does not mean we will develop a safer world at home. And of course there will be a Subway (the sandwich place, not the mode of transportation) in a space outpost because why wouldn’t fast food corporations line up whatever territory they can.

I will not spoil the adventures along the journey; I will just say that the characters acceptance of them as ordinary and expected also underscores the vastness of the imagined world and deepens the impact of the dangers Roy faces.

The score by Max Richter, cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Intersteller”), and the sound design by Grant Elder shape the story-telling, making the exploration seem so completely realistic that we can believe it is already an ordinary part of our daily lives, but keeping things exciting and suspenseful when the time comes.

And then there is the story. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut, like his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a voyage to Neptune when Roy was a child. Now someone needs to go to Neptune to investigate a mysterious electrical surge that is creating great damage on earth. And it seems possible that Clifford is involved somehow, that he has survived all this time.

The astronauts are required to do regular self-assessment check-ins on their mental and psychological states to determine whether they are stable enough for space travel. But it is not at all clear as Roy goes through the list of questions whether he is saying what he really feels or what he knows they want to hear. “I am focused only on the essentials,” he says, “I do not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important.” Can anyone believe that is possible? Or that it should be possible? What Roy’s superiors know is the data that they have received, showing that his pulse never goes above 80, even when the situation is very dire. So, should he have one of those “Houston, we have a problem” complications, they believe they can count on him to be level-headed and focus on practical solutions instead of getting emotional, frightened, or angry.

And so he seems to be the right choice for “a crisis of unknown magnitude,” unprecedented electrical surges that put all human life at risk and that seem to be connected to Clifford’s long-ago mission. Roy agrees to go to Neptune, requiring stops on the moon and Mars, to see if he can find and stop the surges. But there’s a warning. “We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us.” “I remain mission ready,” Roy assures them.

But we learn that Roy understands rage. He has seen it in his father and he feels it in himself. There will be sacrifices along the way, and decisions with tragic consequences. I found the ultimate encounter less than satisfying, not up to the ambitions of the premise and the settings. But Pitt’s performance and the world of the film provide more than enough reason to watch and wonder.

Parents should know that this film includes sci-fi style violence with peril and some disturbing and graphic images, themes of parental abandonment, characters who are injured and killed, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Was Roy honest in his answers about his emotional state? How was he like his father and how was he different? Would you like to explore space?

If you like this, try: “2001,” “Gravity,” “The Martian,” and “Silent Running”

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Downton Abbey

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Assassination attempt, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019
Copyright 2019 Focus Features

There’s a reason the hugely popular “Downton Abbey” television series is named for the property, not the characters. The part of Downton Abbey the building, or, I should say, the estate, is played by real-life historic Highclere Castle. It is over a thousand acres and has 200 rooms. And (which you can stay in via Airbnb). The story began in 2010 (1912 in Downton years) with the vital question of the future of the estate, which like most British great homes, was entailed. That means that it would always be inherited by the eldest male of each generation. (For more on this issue, see Sense and Sensibility and Moving Midway and let me just have a brief aside here to say that one completely revolutionary decision of our founding fathers that does not get enough credit for deciding that in the United States people could leave their property and land as they wished.).

The noble family occupying Downton Abbey are the Crawleys, headed by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville of “Paddington”), who with his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has three beautiful daughters and no sons. The property will thus go to to a cousin, who conveniently has become engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Unfortunately, as the first episode begins, he had been traveling to the United States on the Titanic, and he has been killed. Lady Mary is very sorry to lose her fiancé, but the family is in a complete upheaval because the next male relative is someone they don’t even know. Meanwhile, one of the great strengths and points of interest in the show is that it devotes equal attention and respect to the extensive staff below stairs, the servants, who all have complicated characters and conflicts and lives. They include Mrs. Patmore, the cook (Lesley Nicol), Carson, the head butler (Jim Carter), Tom Branson, and the chauffeur (Allen Leech), who crosses the uncrossable line by marrying one of the Crawley daughters. And there’s everyone’s favorite character, the acid-tongued Dowager Duchess exquisitely played by Dame Maggie Smith.

There is a ton of drama and romance over the run of the series, plus World War I and other seismic historical events.

And so now, here we are with the first Downton Abbey feature film, picking up the story in 1927, and once again the issue of property and inheritance is at issue. Writer Julian Fellowes had a daunting challenge. He had to take two dozen characters the fans were deeply invested in and were used to being able to watch through long-form storylines over the course of months. It’s kind of like “The Avengers” for the PBS/Anglophile crowd (I consider myself happily and proudly in both camps).

And, you know what? He pulls it off, with a brilliant mechanism for bringing everyone together in a high-pressure situation that gives even the most devoted fan many sigh-worthy and highly satisfying developments. As the movie begins, we follow a very important letter from its creation to its receipt. They are to receive a visit from the King and Queen of England (that would be King George and Queen Mary, the parents of future abdicator Edward VIII and “The King’s Speech” younger brother who became George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history). This is an honor that no one can turn down. And so Downton is made ready, every tiara and silver serving piece polished, every piece of furniture in every one of the 200 rooms shined, and every arcane protocol meticulously followed.

There are ups and downs, none of the downs too terrible, all of the ups reassuring and satisfying. If we think about it for a moment, we will remember why we do not want to return to that world. It will take less than a moment if we consider the possibility we would be returning as the servants, not the nobility; the Crawleys may worry about money, but they get to worry in some beautiful clothes and settings while they are nicely cared for. We are aware that both the upstairs and downstairs characters struggle with the restrictions of their positions but somehow it all seems like a fairy tale to escape to in this lush and beautiful version, where we can all imagine ourselves dressing for dinner and receiving a visit from the royal family.

Parents should know that this film includes references to terminal illness, family conflicts, assassination attempt, scuffle, an out of wedlock child, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Why did the servants rebel? Why did Violet change her mind about the property? Do you agree with what Thomas told the princess?

If you like this, try: “Gosford Park” and the “Downton Abbey’ television series

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Hustlers

Posted on September 12, 2019 at 5:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and scuffles, very risky behavior
Diversity Issues: Gender issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019

Copyright 2019 STX Films
I’m not excusing any crimes, I promise, but I have to begin with this: four strippers received harsher sentences for slipping mickeys to rich Wall Street guys and taking their money than any rich Wall Street guys got for crashing the economy. Talented writer/director Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “The Meddler,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) has made an honest but warmly sympathetic look at the real-life story of small-time crooks who decided to design their own form of retributive justice and also steal some money. The film is more about their friendship than their crimes, and she tells the story of women who are objectified as a job without letting us objectify them, which is not easy but which is very important.

That begins with a superb cast: producer Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, the maternal ringleader, “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu as Destiny, the vulnerable newcomer, “Riverdale’s” Lili Reinhart as Annabelle, the soft-hearted girl with the weak stomach, and Keke Palmer as Mercedes, who is practical except about her boyfriend. The supporting cast includes breakthrough singer Lizzo and stripper-turned-pop-phenomenon Cardi B. Julia Stiles plays the reporter who is interviewing Ramona and Destiny five years later.

At the club, the strippers must pretend to be fascinated by men who want them to be obedient fantasy figures, and they must pretend not to mind when the men who run the club insist on kickbacks. Their job is to get the men to spend as much money as possible, for drinks and for special services in the private rooms.

Destiny, who is caring for the grandmother who took her in when she was abandoned by her mother, asks Ramona for advice on how to be more successful in the club. Ramona takes her in — literally. In a sweet scene on the roof of the club, the kind-hearted veteran invites the shivering newcomer to snuggle inside her fur coat. After a few lessons on pole dancing and lap dancing, Destiny begins to do better, and she is happy with the new sisterhood that feels like a family. It is the go-go hears of the derivatives era on Wall Street, and there is a lot of money to be made from the finance types that the women shrewdly categorize by net worth and vulnerability.

After the financial meltdown, though, things get tough. By then, Destiny has a baby, and with no education or experience, her options are limited. And so, it seems smart, not wrong, to go just one tiny extra step over the line to get money from men who got away with so much more. And so, they start slipping a sprinkle of MDMA and ketamine into their drinks, then running up charges on their credit cards. Pretty soon, they decide, in Marxian terms, to own the means of production and stop giving so much of the take to the club. As Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin sang, the sisters were doin’ it for themselves. A very merry Christmas at Ramona’s apartment features luxury goods under the tree and the makeshift family as grateful and loving as any Hallmark movie finale, if Hallmark movies featured chinchilla coats and red-soled Louboutin stilettos.

Like any successful small business, the women face the challenge of scalability. They want more, so they bring in newcomers who create risk. All good things must come to an end, and usually that applies to bad things as well.

Scafaria gives us some glitz and glitter and thumping music to entice by (Lopez does a remarkable pole dance). But Scafaria wisely adds some classical themes to the score when the ladies are outside of the club, literally underscoring the bigger picture of this story. The focus here is on the characters and their relationships, doing their best to take care of their families, both the ones by birth and the ones by choice, and it is hard not to feel ourselves a part of their family by the joy in that once last dance.

Parents should know that this film includes male and female nudity and sexual situations, strippers, drinking and drug use, strong language, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: What surprised you about these characters? How did they create the families they wished they had?

If you like this, try: “The Big Short” and the New York Magazine story about the real-life case that inspired this film

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Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

Posted on September 8, 2019 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements/disturbing images
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Images of pogroms and references to the Holocaust
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019

“Fiddler on the Roof” opened on Broadway in 1964 and every single day in the over half a century since then it has been performed somewhere. Even more impressive, it has been performed pretty much everywhere, and is currently back in New York with an off-Broadway all-Yiddish version directed by Joel Gray. In this engaging new documentary about the history and continuing cultural vitality of the musical based on the stories of Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem about the families in a Russian Jewish shtetl, we see productions in Japan, Thailand, and in a student production with an all-black and Latinx cast. We see Puerto Rican “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda singing “To Life” to his Dominican/Austrian-American bride at their reception, in a YouTube video with over 6.5 million views.

We hear the show’s creators and performers talk about what it means to them. Since the earliest part of the 20th century, Jewish composers and lyricists including Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Fritz Loewe, and more wrote huge hit Broadway shows about cowboys, Thai kings, an Italian mayor of New York, Pacific Islanders, and a sharpshooting hillbilly. Finally, it was time to write their own story, the story of the Jews who lived in tiny towns in Eastern Europe until anti-Semitic gangs and local governments pushed them out. And so they were ready to tell the story of their parents and grandparents, just as those stories seemed vitally important again.

So we see again what has made this story so vibrant over the decades. “What is this about?” director/choreographer Jerome Robbins repeatedly asked the show’s creators, Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Jerry Bock (music), and Joseph Stein (book). They tried different answers — about the poor father of daughters who have their own ideas about who they should marry or about Jews struggling in a country that is increasingly hostile to them. He asked them again until they finally came up with the right answer and it was just one word: tradition. That, of course became the iconic opening song in the play.

My parents saw the original production of “Fiddler” on Broadway and bought the cast album, which our family played constantly. I played the part of the oldest daughter in a religious school production and then our daughter played the same role in her middle school version. We have all seen it many times, and my parents saw a production in Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast my parents saw, where Tevye sounded like TV. They asked a member of the audience why it was so popular in Japan and they got the same answer someone in this movie did, “Because it is so Japanese.”

The fringes on the prayer shawl and the words of the prayers may be different, but every family has had to resolve conflicts between the generations and every individual has had to face the existential question of which traditions provide a foundation of our identity and connect us to our culture and which have to be adapted or abandoned, which aspects of our culture hold us up and which hold us back.

In “Fiddler,” we see three conflicts as Tevye’s three oldest daughters fall in love. The oldest refuses an arranged marriage with an older, wealthy man and asks her father to approve her marriage to the poor tailer she loves. Then the second says she will marry the hotheaded revolutionary she loves, and she does not want her father’s permission, only his blessing. He gives it to them. But when the third daughter wants to marry a man who is not Jewish, that is something he cannot accept. Meanwhile, Russian anti-Semitism is growing, and it is no longer possible for the Jews to stay in the only home they have ever known. When the play was first produced in 1964, the world was still learning about the breadth and damage of the Holocaust (the term itself was still not widely used), and the State of Israel was just 16 years old and still perilous. The story was at the same time charmingly nostalgic, painfully topical, poignantly personal (everyone understands “Sunrise Sunset”), and meaningfully universal. The documentary shows the contributions of the extraordinarily gifted people who created the show (touchingly, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, a Jew born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, was inspired in part by visiting the town his family came from, wiped out in the Holocaust), and the impact the show has had around the world, always resonating with contemporary concerns. But most of all, it reminds us of why it is so enduring simply through the characters, story, and music that will still be touching audiences in another 50 years.

Parents should know that this film has references to theatrical and historic tragedies and atrocities.

Family discussion: When did you first see “Fiddler” or hear its songs? What are your favorite traditions?

If you like this, try: the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a theatrical production — there should be one near you.

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