Dream Horse

Posted on May 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in pub, alcoholic portrayed as cute and funny
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent, off-screen serious injury of a horse
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 21, 2021
Date Released to DVD: July 5, 2021

Copyright 2020 Bleeker Street
Dream Horse” is a fact-based underdog, or maybe under-horse story about an improbable equine champion. But the real thoroughbred in the movie is the endlessly talented Toni Collette, who plays Jan Vokes, a cashier at a big box store in Wales, who dreams of breeding a racehorse. This is a solidly constructed feel good movie, with performances and details that make it better than it needs to be.

Even those who do not know the story and have not seen the popular documentary, “Dark Horse,” about the real story, have a pretty good idea of where this is going. There will be an impossible dream, some early signs of success, setbacks, struggles, and a triumphant conclusion, with glimpses of the real people (and horse) in the final credits. Those credits, by the way, are one of the film’s highlights; don’t miss them, as the actors and the Welsh villagers they portray sing a classic song by Wales’ favorite son Tom Jones together.

It is Collette who helps to make the story feel fresh and authentic, along with the staging of the race scenes by Welsh director Euros Lyn, so exciting we lean forward in our seats, as though it will help our favorite be first over the finish line. She is called upon in the film to sit in various owners’ seats at various racetracks and make each expression of worry, excitement, fear, and ecstatic joy look different and real and she, well, crosses the finish line ahead of the pack every time.

Jan feels stuck as the film begins. Her husband, Brian (Owen Teale) snores at night and bores in the daytime, watching reality television shows about veterinary procedures and ignoring Jan except when absent-mindedly asking what’s for tea. She has two jobs, cashier at the store and barmaid at the pub. When she isn’t being ignored by Brian, she is caring for her elderly parents. There is nothing to make her feel a sense of hope or purpose.

And then she overhears a customer at the bar talk about his time as part owner of a racehorse. He is Howard (Damian Lewis), an accountant who nearly went broke when the syndicate failed. Jan realizes that if she can just get everyone to give ten pounds a week, she can breed a racehorse by buying a retired mare and paying the stud fee to get her pregnant. A lovably quirky group of people from the village and a couple of Howard’s friends agree to join. And they agree it isn’t for the money or for the craic (Celtic term for fun, but for the hwyl (pronounced hoyle, and a Welsh term meaning more than fun, fun plus enthusiasm, spirit, and purpose). The film’s wisest choice is making it clear that the miracle is not the horse. It is the chance to believe in something and to be part of a community.

The foal is born, but the mare dies. In some other versions of the story we might spend time on how the syndicate members care for the motherless colt, named Dream Alliance, but in this one we skip ahead to bringing him to the training facility of the country’s top racehorse trainers, played by Nicholas Farrell (“Chariots of Fire”). No training montage here. We skip right from his initial no to, the “wait a minute, that horse is really fast” to, well, being off to the races.

That leaves perhaps too much time with the overly cutesy townsfolk. I think we are past the time when the town drunk is supposed to be funny or adorable. And the resolution of Howard’s conflict with his wife, who is understandably worried about a repeat of his past losses, is improbably easy. But then there is another chance to hold our breath at the races, and to cheer for Dream Alliance, for dreams, and the alliances that make them come true.

Parents should know that this film includes some potty humor, scenes in a bar, a town drunk whose alcoholism is played for humor, a sad death, and a serious injury of an animal.

Family discussion: What dream would make a difference in your community? Why was it so difficult for Jan’s father to tell her he was proud of her? How did money change the way the group made decisions? What would you do just for the “hwyl?”

If you like this, try: “Dreamer” (also inspired by a true story), “Phar Lap,” and “The Black Stallion”

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Let Him Go

Posted on November 2, 2020 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very tense peril and violence, sad death, characters injured and killed, guns, ax, fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2020
Date Released to DVD: February 1, 2021

Copyright 2020 Focus Features
We think George (Kevin Costner) and Margaret (Diane Lane) Blackledge are dressing for a funeral. In the first moments of “Let Him Go” their adult son was killed in an accident on their farm, and their expressions and clothes are somber. But it is three years after their son’s death and they are dressing for a wedding, not a funeral. Lorna (Kayli Carter), the widow of their son James and the mother of his now-three-year-old son Jimmy, is getting married to a man named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) and leaving their farm to live with him. They reassure themselves that they will still see Jimmy. But then Margaret sees them when they don’t know she is there, and Donnie hits Lorna. And then, without any notice, Donnie, Lorna, and Jimmy disappear. He has gone home to his family, leaving no way to contact them. It is the 1960s, and it was easier to hide in those days, whether from grandparents or from law enforcement.

Margaret decides to go after them, to bring Jimmy home to live with them. George agrees to go along, but he does not think they can get Jimmy away from his mother and his new family. He wants to give Margaret a chance to say goodbye.

“Let Him Go” is based on a book by Larry Watson, adapted by writer/director Thomas Bezucha. He makes great use of the majestic scenery of the northwest, especially when George and Margaret encounter a lone young Native American named Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart). Just as in the classic westerns, the landscape emphasizes the opportunity — and the dangers — of a world where there is so much land and people are so isolated.

Lane and Costner, who played a couple in two Superman movies, have an easy chemistry that makes us believe there is a long history between them. Neither George nor Margaret say much, in part because they know each other so well there is little more to say, and that includes understanding that there is no point in trying to persuade each other on issues that they know too well will never be resolved. “Sometimes that’s all life is, a list of what we’ve lost,” George says. But Margaret is not going to give up.

Bezucha knows how to create tension, even with seemingly simple comments or undramatic settings, which only adds to the sense of dread. You don’t find a Weboy, a relative tells them. “You let it be known you’re looking for a Weboy. They find you.”

And they do, at a place so far off the map they could never find it without being led by Donnie’s uncle. They are invited to dinner by Donnie’s mother Blanche, played by the unsurpassable Lesley Manville, in one of the year’s best performances. She can make the offer of pork chops sound ominous. And she does. She rips into the role and is absolutely electrifying. And terrifying.

Two solid citizens up against a family of feral outlaws, an updated western with good guys and bad guys leading to an intense and violent battle. The set-up is conventional, but the direction and performances make it memorable.

Parents should know that this film is an exceptionally tense thriller with peril, abuse, and violence that includes guns, an ax, and fire. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: Why did George and Margaret have different ideas about what they wanted to get from finding Jimmy? What do we learn from Peter’s story?

If you like this, try: “The Lookout” and “The Highwaymen”

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Made in Italy

Posted on August 13, 2020 at 5:14 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: References to sad offscreen death, divorce, family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 8, 2020
Date Released to DVD: December 7, 2020

Copyright 2020 IFC
Made in Italy” is a labor of love starring a real-life father and son playing a father and son. And it is about a labor of love in the most literal terms as the estranged father and son have to work together on the house in Tuscany they jointly own so that it can be sold.

Like the characters they play, Liam Neeson (Robert) and his son Micheál Richardson (Jack) experienced the devastating loss of a wife and mother, actress Natasha Richardson (Micheál uses her last name as a tribute). This adds an overlay of intimacy to the film would not be supported by the script alone, a first-time feature written and directed by actor James D’Arcy. It is perhaps for that reason that a climactic scene of grief is truncated and underplayed. Maybe it is because it was just too painful. Or the shifting and uncertain tone of the film, which wants to be warm-hearted, romantic, comic, and dramatically emotional at the same time.

Jack manages an art gallery owned by the family of the wife who is divorcing him. When she tells him they are going to sell the gallery, he insists he will buy it. “The gallery is my home,” he says. He cannot let it go. But to get the money he needs he will have to sell his late mother’s home in Tuscany, deserted for twenty years because it was too painful to return. And he will have to get his father to agree. They are barely on speaking terms. Jack has contempt for his father’s failure to produce any new artwork in years and for his irresponsible attitude. Jack arrives to take him on the trip and Robert has not packed (“I thought it was tomorrow”) and, in one of the movie’s most regrettable cliches, cannot remember the name of the woman who spent the night. Robert does not respect Jack. Again, regrettably, he puts it this way: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t run their wive’s galleries.”

The house is a beautiful mess. The landscape around it is breathtaking. Robert calls it “one of the most fabulous convergences of nature ever,” and dismisses Jack’s referring to it as “the view.” And they disagree about a mural Robert painted on one of the walls, which he calls his tribute to abstract expressionist Franz Kline, but looks more like a tribute to the blood-tsunami elevator in “The Shining.”

There is a brisk British real estate agent with a severe haircut (Lindsay Duncan), who brings a delightful mix of disdain and saleswomanship to every scene she’s in, at least until her character has to soften up when she is charmed by Robert. There’s a warmhearted local woman (Valeria Bilello) who is there to soften up Jack. These women and the experience of living in and working with the home of the woman they are still grieving makes it possible for them to do what they have never done before: talk about their loss in a scene that is not as emotionally resonant as the film sets us up to expect. Maybe it is just be British reticence.

But then we return to the real heart of the film, the spectacularly gorgeous Tuscan scenery and oh, that food. That setting, and the genuine affection between Neeson and Richardson, makes up for the predictability of the script. What do you think, with the potential buyers be kind, considerate people who deeply appreciate the house as it is or a poor copy of the self-centered boors Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis used to play on “Saturday Night Live?” It’s the fabulous convergence of nature and the almost-fabulous convergence of the actors that makes it worth a watch.

Parents should know that this movie concerns a tragic death, survivor guilt, and family estrangement. Characters use strong language and there is a mild sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why wouldn’t Jack sign the divorce papers? Why was the gallery so important to him? Why couldn’t Jack and Robert be honest with one another?

If you like this, try: “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Life as a House,” and “Enchanted April”

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Trolls: World Tour

Posted on April 10, 2020 at 11:02 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 10, 2020
Date Released to DVD: July 7, 2020
Copyright 2020 DreamWorks

Remember on “Sesame Street” when they ask, which one of these four things is not like the other? “One of these doesn’t belong.” But there are a lot of ways to look at what is same and what is different, as “Trolls: World Tour” explores in a surprisingly subtle and nuanced theme in the midst of so much…well, just so much.

This sequel to the popular original film based on the little fuzzy-haired so-ugly-they’re-cute 1960’s fad dolls begins where the last one left off. Formerly cynical Branch (Justin Timberlake) has now learned to be happy, or happy-ish, and the eternally cheery Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is now Queen. Everything is glitters and rainbows and especially music music music, with a dizzying array of song snippets millennial parents will recognize. The snippets contribute to a a hyper, ADD quality that at times makes viewers feel shaken by the shoulders to make sure we notice we are being ENTERTAINED.

But happily-ever-after endings must be undone if there is to be a sequel and so Poppy learns that the pop-music trolls are not the only trolls and, even more surprising, pop music is not the only music. There’s even a map showing all of the different troll music communities, covering country, reggae, classical, hip-hop, funk, EDM, rock and more. (But it’s an old map — there’s no disco anymore. Even a movie about how harmony means accepting and enjoying every kind of music, disco is still over.)

Once all trolls were together, guided by a lyre with magical strings. But then they broke up into separate divisions, each with one string to produce the music. Queen Barb of Rock (a delicious Rachel Bloom of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), daughter of King Thrash (a very funny Ozzie Osborne), declares a world tour which ever-optimistic Poppy thinks is about bringing everyone together in a peaceful manner, but Barb wants to grab all of the strings and make rock the one music for all of Troll-dom. Will this be the day the music dies? Or will Poppy find a way to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony? Will there be guest appearances from music giants along the way? What do you think? Kelly Clarkson, George Clinton, and Mary J. Blige all show up, along with many more song snippets and a lot of candy-colored action.

Also in the mix is Sam Rockwell, Kendrick’s “Mr. Right” co-star (not for kids, but a great movie if you like dark humor about world-class assassins). Here he plays a suspiciously helpful troll centaur from country music land.

And somewhere in there are some genuinely thoughtful themes. Like “Frozen II,” this movie touches gently but candidly on the idea that history is written by the victors. What we’ve been told about the past should be questioned, especially if we are portrayed as the heroes. And the idea of same and different, what kinds of differences we should appreciate and support in each other and what kinds we should not, is raised with sophistication and yet still in an accessible manner.

As everyone knows, this movie was scheduled to be a big holiday weekend family movie theatrical release. Instead, in the age of COVID-19, it is the first major studio film being sent straight to streaming, both a gift to homebound families and something of an experiment in unprecedented times. It may seem a bit frantic after weeks of sequester, but it is a bright, tuneful, sweet story with a message of hope that seems especially welcome in the spring of 2020.

Parents should know that this film has some mild peril and brief potty humor. A male troll “gives birth” to a baby (pops out of his head, like Zeus and Minerva)

Family discussion: Which is your favorite kind of music and why? How are Poppy and Barb alike? Can you find three things that are the same about you and your family members and three things that are different?

If you like this, try: “Trolls,” “Happy Feet,” and the “All Hail King Julien” series

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Onward

Posted on March 4, 2020 at 5:19 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence, theme of loss
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Copyright Pixar 2020
Arthur C. Clarke, the sci-fi author who wrote 2001, famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At the beginning of Pixar’s new animated fantasy, “Onward” we see what happens when a world of wizards, elves, incantations, and — in both senses of the word — charms changes when technology takes over. It may be more satisfyingly magical to use a spell to bring light to darkness, but it can never be as convenient. And so, in this community, most of the inhabitants have given up magic to live in a way that to us seems almost normal. Even if our two main characters here are blue elves, teenage boy elves, so with the pointy ears and all, but also with the usual angst of adolescence, plus the extra longing that comes from never having known their father.

The younger one is Ian (voice of “Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland), timid, anxious, and just turning 16. His older brother is Barley (“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Chris Pratt), more of a bro-type, way into fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons, and enjoying a gap year before whatever he will get around to eventually. They live with their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who tells Ian there is a special birthday present waiting for him, a message from his father. Now that Ian is 16, he may be able to use his father’s “visitation spell” to bring him back for just one day. Ian is overwhelmed, nervous, and very excited.

Those are not ideal conditions for first-time magic, so things do not go exactly as wished. Dad is only half there, literally. Not as in a see-through ghost, as in up to the waist. Shoes, socks, khaki pants, and a belt. In order to get the rest of him, Ian and Barley will have to go on a good, old-fashioned magic quest, one that will resonate especially with fans of fantasy games, both IRL and digital. And like all heroic journeys, they will be tested in ways they could never have imagined, learn lessons they could never have known enough to ask the right questions for, and strengthen bonds they did not know they had.

If you are familiar with fantasy lore, whether in games or fiction, you will enjoy many references and details. If you are not, you will find out just how much fun and satisfaction there is in a world where every element is up for re-imagining. What would a fantasy world stop sign say? What would an elf have a a pet? You’ll find out. What is the same is as much fun as what is different. The community’s reflections of its mingled magic and technology history plays out with Pixar’s always-delicious whimsy and future viewers on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming will want to hit pause to examine the settings in detail.

Like all of the best fantasy, we learn more about our own world through the way the Pixar crowd re-imagines it. One of my favorite settings will be especially entertaining to families who eat out at “family-style” restaurants. This one is run by the Manticore, a sort of winged bear with bison horns and a scorpion tail-type beast with the voice of Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.

The highlight of the film is the parallel heroic journey taken by the Manticore and Laurel, who deserve a movie of their own. In most stories, the mom’s job is to say “Be careful” and then bake brownies to welcome the boys back home, or to mess things up and have to be rescued. Not here.

There are other welcome surprises as well, not just in the adventures and characters along the way, but in the way it gets (and does not get) resolved. And, because this is Pixar, you’re going to cry when it happens, and hug your family a little bit harder, too.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of of loss of a parent, sibling conflict, as well as fantasy peril and action, and some monsters.

Family discussion: If there’s someone in your life you miss, what would you ask them or say to them? Which is better, magic or technology? Is there a mighty warrior inside of you?

If you like this, try: “Yellow Submarine” and “Finding Nemo”

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