The Greatest Showman

Posted on December 20, 2017 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including fights and mob threats, fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 20, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 9, 2018
Amazon.com ASIN: B077R32LVQ

Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
I am in no way dissing “The Greatest Showman” by saying that when it is available on DVD and streaming it is destined, even designed to be popular for sing-alongs at middle school slumber parties. Or that it is a good old-fashioned movie musical to take the whole family to, including grandparents and grandchildren, over the holidays. “The Greatest Showman” is differences-make-us-great personal empowerment tuneful fantasy inspired by impresario P.T. Barnum, who revolutionized entertainment flavored with unabashed hucksterism in the 19th century.

This highly romanticized and simplified version of PT Barnum’s life has the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) the son of a poor tailor, very much in love with the daughter of his father’s wealthy customer. She is sent away to boarding school and he is left an orphan and has to survive on the streets, but they write to each other (an “I wish” musical number, of course) and when they grow up, he returns to her family’s mansion so they can get married. Her father warns that she will be back.

At first, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) are poor but very happy and devoted to their two daughters. But Barnum loses his desk job and has to come up with some new way to support his family. To get a loan from the bank he presents documentation that falls somewhere between exaggeration and outright fraud, then uses the money to rent a warehouse and sets up a series of exhibits.

No one comes to see it.

And so, inspired by his daughter, he decides to add “unusual” people to the displays. Attitudes toward disabilities and differences were very different almost 200 years ago, and many people who were unusual — little people, women with facial hair, people with albinism, conjoined twins — had no opportunities for school or jobs and were abandoned or hidden by their families. In the world of this movie, handled with as much delicacy as is possible in the context of a big, brassy musical, Barnum tells them they were beautiful and promises to make them stars. If there are echoes here of the unforgettably eerie “we accept her, one of us” in “Freaks,” consider this a refutation, not repetition. At one point, when Barnum is successful, he wavers, not wanting his circus “family” to mingle with the society patrons. But he rejects Charity’s society family as well. And the circus performers remind him that once they recognized their beauty, he cannot take that away from them with the stirring anthem, “This is Me.”

And really, and appropriately given the subject matter, it’s the stirring anthems and the pageantry that this movie is about, not the melodrama of its thin storyline. Barnum tours with his star, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), straining his marriage. Barnum has a partner (Zac Efron), who falls for an African-American performer (a radiant Zendaya–can’t wait to see more from her in the next “Spider-Man” movie), straining his relationship with his family. And there are those in the community who are offended by Barnum’s performers.

But it’s just part of the show, there to give everyone a chance to sing and dance, with songs from the young Oscar and Tony Award-winning team from “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hanson.” There’s no attempt to be true to the period; another reminder we’re just here to have some fun, the closest most of us will ever get to running away to the circus.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, family tension and drama, sad loss of a father, bullies, a scary fire, a brawl, and a racist remark.

Family discussion: Would you buy a ticket to see a Barnum show? What would you want to see? How would his show be different today?

If you like this, try: “The Great Houdini” and “Moulin Rouge”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

The Shape of Water

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 3:37 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, peril, torture, murder
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 12, 2018
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

There is some reassuring symmetry in the cinematic bookends that gave us “Beauty and the Beast” in January (the highest-grossing film of the year), a “Beauty is the beast” film with the mid-year’s “Colossal,” and now, in December, another variation with Guillermo del Toro’s enthralling R-rated fairy tale, “The Shape of Water,” which was awarded the 2018 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, a custodian in a secret government lab during the cold war era. Her closest friends are her chatty, unhappily married colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an anxious, cat-loving, old-movie-watching, out-of-work illustrator. They are the only two people who can communicate with Elisa. She can hear but is mute due to a childhood injury, and uses via American Sign Language.

The film is as gorgeous as any enchanted tale could wish, with a green-blue color palette that evokes the sea and old-school, analog equipment in cavernous rooms and huge, clanking equipment harking back to early horror classics like “Frankenstein” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (the later of which del Toro acknowledges as inspiration), with a nod to princess in the castle stories as well.

Elisa discovers one of the lab’s biggest secrets. Strickland (Michael Shannon) a harsh, brutal, “collector,” has captured and brought back to the lab a creature he discovered in the Amazon, a gilled, scaley human-shaped reptilian (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) who has two separate breathing systems, one for air, one for water. He has some other unusual qualities, which Strickland is not learning much about because he mostly zaps the creature with a cattle prod to “tame” him. Elisa shares her hard-boiled eggs with the creature, and then some music, and then some words, as he begins to learn her language. As we will see, there are parallels between them that make them seem almost like star-crossed lovers kept apart only because they are of different species. Elisa is an orphan who was found not on a doorstep but in the water. The scars on her throat from the abuse that cost her her voice look like gills. Most important, she believes the creature is the only one who sees her as whole, complete, not missing anything.

There is a scientist at the lab named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a secret of his own. There are other people who want to steal the creature and people who just want to kill him because it is more important to keep him away from the enemy than to learn more about who he is and what he can tell us about who we are. Of course, the way we treat him tells us a lot about who we are.

The story capaciously encompases a fairy tale romance with spies, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, a heist, and a musical number without, well, losing a step, thanks to del Toro’s ability to create cinematic magic. Hawkins is, as she was in “Maudie” earlier this year, exquisitely able to create a character of fierce intelligence and the kind of gentleness that is grounded in moral courage. Instead of subtitles in white at the bottom of the screen, her words are depicted in yellow letters floating around her, her face communicating as clearly as her hands. The movie is bracketed with images of Elisa floating. By the end, the audience will feel we are floating as well.

Parents should know that this movie includes some elements of horror with graphic and disturbing images, peril, and violence, including torture, sexual references and situations, strong language, smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: How are Elisa and the creature alike? How are Hoffstetler and Strickland different? Why does Giles change his mind?

If you like this, try: “Colossal” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

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Coco

Posted on November 21, 2017 at 8:42 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of death and loss, some peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright Disney-Pixar 2017

Those of us who remember the 1995 release of Pixar’s first feature film, “Toy Story,” feel that we’ve all grown up together. It isn’t just the astonishing progress in the technology (the reason the first film’s characters were toys was that all they could animate were shiny smooth surfaces). It is the progression of the themes of the films, the first one literally about a child’s playthings, through stories that deal with increasingly adult concerns about aging, loss, and meaning. “Coco” is the story of a Mexican 12-year-old named Miguel, but the title reminds us that the central character is his great-grandmother Coco, struggling with dementia but beloved by her family. It has the dazzling visuals, expert tone and pacing, and the smiling-through-tears moments we have come to rely on from Pixar.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is the youngest in a big, close family that lives together and works together in the family shoemaking business. He tells us the story of the family through beautifully animated papel picado, the lacy paper cutouts that are a Mexican tradition. His great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter, the then toddler Coco, to pursue a musical career and since then the family has banned any member from playing or even listening to music. But Miguel loves music and has a secret room where he watches old clips of the community’s biggest music and movie star, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and plays his homemade guitar, painted to look like de la Cruz’s.

Miguel hopes to play in a talent show but his grandmother, Coco’s daughter, finds out and smashes his guitar. When Miguel tries to borrow de la Cruz’s guitar from his crypt, he is somehow transported to the Land of the Dead, just as the residents are making their annual pilgrimage over the marigold-strewn bridge to visit the families who have invited them with photographs and memories. There he recognizes his ancestors from the family ofrenda (shrine with photos, candles, food, and mementos). Like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland, he has many adventures on a journey in an enchantingly imaginative world but wants to go home. If he does not return by sunrise, he will have to stay there forever.

The Land of the Dead is gorgeously imagined, filled with thousands of lights and the kind of fascinating details that are made for the pause button. The — I’m going to call them people, but they look like skeletons with eyeballs — live in a stratified world, where those who have extended families and are best and most lovingly remembered have beautiful clothes and homes while those who are alone and nearly forgotten live in a (still-picturesque) slum and call each other “cousin” and “uncle” to pretend that they are still connected to someone. Once they are no longer remembered, they just dissolve into dust. Miguel meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a loose-limbed, poorly dressed skeleton who is close to dissolving as he is being forgotten in the land of the living. Hector agrees to take Miguel to Ernesto de la Cruz, for help in going home, if Miguel will bring back Hector’s photo, so he can be remembered.

It is good to see Mexican culture portrayed in such a straightforward manner, not exotica-sized or othered. There are some exciting adventures and some very funny moments along the way, involving Miguel’s sidekick, a Xolo street dog named Dante, a wild talent show/concert, a still-pushing-the-edge-of-the-artistic-envelope Frida Kahlo, and a psychedelic-colored flying lion-headed creature, one of the alebrije who guide the dead to where they are supposed to be. The skeletons are brilliantly animated, each with a very individual personality and a lot of fun with bones that, without tissue, do not always hold together. Moments of warm humor keep the story from getting maudlin, and moments of true-heartedness make us feel as connected to the Land of the Dead as Miguel is.

Parents should know that much of the film takes place in the Land of the Dead (heaven) filled with skeletons, and it has themes of loss including memory loss, and murder and alcohol.

Family discussion: When is the right time to seize the moment? Ask your family for some stories of your ancestors. What stories do you want people to remember about you?

If you like this, try: “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out,” and “The Book of Life” — and learn about Frida Kahlo and about the real-life Day of the Dead celebrations

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3D Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week movie review Movies Stories About Kids

Last Flag Flying

Posted on November 9, 2017 at 9:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse, smoking, references to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of military service in wartime, sad deaths offscreen
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 29, 2018
Copyright 2017 Amazon Studios

Three of the best actors in the world give immense depth and humanity to characters who might so easily have been caricatures in “Last Flag Flying,” about three veterans on a sad personal mission. It’s got a backstory that might be worth a movie of its own. “The Last Detail,” based on the book by Darryl Ponicsan, starred Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as Marines ordered to escort a naive teenaged sailor (Randy Quaid) to serve an eight-year prison sentence for a trivial offense. It was a critical and commercial success due to Nicholson’s performance and a picaresque tone that suited the era. 4 years later, another Ponicsan book about three military men (now long retired from service) on a sad journey with some comic detours comes to the screen, directed by Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”). It is not a sequel, though some of the characters have the same names and some similar histories.

It is 2003. A man carrying a manilla envelope walks into a dodgy little dive bar and orders a beer. The bartender barely glances at him, in the midst of a one-sided conversation with the bar’s only other customer, a regular. “You don’t remember me, do you?” asks the man with the envelope. The bartender, who is also the owner of the bar, takes a good look. “Doc!” he crows. “No one has called me that in years.” Doc is Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) and the man behind the bar is Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). They eat pizza, talk about old times, and fall asleep in a booth. The next day, Larry takes Sal to a church, where the Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is conducting services. The men have not seen each other in decades, but they served together in Vietnam, Nealon and Mueller in the Marines and Shepherd in the Navy.

Mueller is not especially happy to see friends from the days when he was known as Mueller the Mauler, but he invites them to dinner at his home with his wife, Ruth (a splendid Deanna Reed-Foster, warm and wise). It is there that Shepherd explains why he wanted to find them. His son has been killed in action and he wants Mueller and Nealon to accompany him to the funeral. Nealon goes because he wants to do something different. Mueller goes, reluctantly, because he wants to be of service. “They represent a dark period in my life,” he tells Ruth, “a very dark period.” “And you represent God,” she replies.

And so the odyssey begins, with many adventures along the way, and, as Linklater does so well (the “Before” trilogy, “Waking Life”), many wide-ranging conversations, here including discussions of the past and present, the newish technology of the cell phone, sex, sleep, race, order, chaos, war, lies, choices, and consequences. Accompanying them for part of the trip is a Marine who was a close friend of Shepherd’s son (J. Quinton Johnson of “Everybody Wants Some!!!” excellent).

Near the end, Linklater gives us two scenes showing that what might have seemed episodic and slight was deliberate, thoughtful, and meaningful. It is his actors’ respect for the flawed characters they play and Linklater’s own respect for their choices, challenges, and regrets, that show us what we ask of the people who go to war on the other side of the planet because someone thought it would keep us safe, and what we owe them as well.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, drinking, smoking, references to drug abuse, references to wartime violence, and very crude sexual references including prostitution.

Family discussion: What should they have told Mrs. Hightower? Why did Larry want to bring his son home? Who would you call for a journey like that one?

If you like this, try: “The Last Detail” and “Taking Chance”

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Based on a book Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week movie review Movies War

Thor: Ragnarock

Posted on November 2, 2017 at 10:14 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book fantasy peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 5, 2018

Copyright Disney 2017
New Zealand director Taika Waititi is exactly what Marvel/Disney needed, a true fanboy who loves superheroes because they are fun. Away with you, brooding and tortured comic book characters! What we want to see is a superhero who gets messed with, some colorful characters, a fascinatingly deranged villain, some thrilling action and slamming special effects, a surprise cameo, and, after a suitable series of setbacks, triumph. Plus some post-credit scenes. There’s all of that in this movie, plus some of the funniest moments on screen this year. It is irreverent, even cheeky. It has a sense of humor about itself while never, ever making fun of comic books or their fans.

Waititi, with a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, has taken one of the most serious of the Avengers, with only Chris Hemsworth’s imperishable charm keeping him just this side of wooden, and made use of his fellow antipodean’s true superpower, which is that he is a superb comic actor.

What does Thor have going for him? He has his dad, the king of the gods, Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), his home, Asgard, his strength, his hair, his divinity, his confidence, and his hammer. He loses most of that pretty quickly, and stripped down Thor suddenly becomes a much more relatable character, more deserving of our support because he actually seems to need it. You might even say down to earth, except that earth does not really come into it this time.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Thor begins. “Oh, no, Thor is in a cage.” He’s not talking to us, and finding out who he is telling his story to is the first hint we get that we are operating in a slightly cracked universe. But then, reassuringly, Thor does his Thor thing and gets himself out of a big mess with endless panache.

And then things go wrong. The Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) turns up to crush his hammer in her hands. She intends to take over Asgard and there does not seem to be anything he can do about it. He ends up on a planet that is essentially a junk pile, where he is discovered by scavengers. “Are you a fighter or are you food?” they ask him. Before they can gobble him up, he is captured by another scavenger (a terrific Tessa Thompson), who turns out to have a connection to Asgard. But she sells him to the Grandmaster (a glam Jeff Goldblum), who runs a lucrative gladiator show for galactic fans. Waiting to go to battle in the arena, Thor meets the movie’s most endearing character, a rock creature named Korg, played by Waititi himself. And then Thor sees his opponent in the battle to the death: his old Avenger buddy Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). We may love seeing the Avengers join together to take on the bad guys, but we love seeing them fight each other, too, and the Thor/Hulk fight is a smash. Literally.

Loki is there, too, I’m happy to say, and I only wish that someday he will have a movie of his own. Tom Hiddleston’s silky bad boy admits at one point that his loyalties shift moment to moment, and his mercurial impishness is perfectly calibrated. Despite her best efforts, Blanchett’s villain is not nearly as interesting as the other characters, and the resolution does not have the emotional weight that it does in the comics. But she barely diminishes the sheer fun of this film and I hope Marvel keeps Waititi on the roster for as many of these as he is willing to take on.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes!

Parents should know that this is a superhero movie with a lot of peril and action-style fantasy violence and some disturbing images, some alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What does Loki want? Which Avenger would you most like to be? What makes someone significant?

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Avengers movies

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3D Action/Adventure Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week movie review Movies Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel Superhero
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