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movie that won ten Oscars and is still beloved, even while admitting its shortcomings and its being quaintly out of date on some of the issues it raises?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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C’mon C’mon

Posted on November 24, 2021 at 2:18 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, graphic nudity, and some sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress, sad offscreen death, mental illness of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 19, 2021
Date Released to DVD: April 11, 2022

Copyright A24 2021
I can’t remember a movie that captured as well as Mike Mills’ “C’mon C’mon” the intense, constant feelings of terror, inadequacy, panic, exhaustion, plus the tsunami of love and gratitude and hope and hilarity that is parenthood. He even captures the heartbreaking sorrow in understanding that childhood is fleeting and no matter what you do you cannot protect them from the injustices of the world. This is one of the best films of the year.

Writer/director based his previous films on his parents. Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his role in “Beginners,” based on Mills’ father, who came out as gay late in life. Annette Bening’s role in “20th Century Women” was based on Mills’ mother. In both films, there were son characters based on Mills himself. “C’mon C’mon,” filmed in gorgeous black and white and even more gorgeous, capacious humanity, was inspired by Mills’ experience of being a father.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a “This American Life”-ish radio producer who is traveling around the country interviewing kids and teenagers about their thoughts on their lives, what superpower they’d like to have, and what the future holds (the interviews in the film are unscripted, real responses from students). His sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), from whom he has been a bit estranged since the death of their mother, needs him to care for her nine-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), as she deals with a family emergency. Her ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is bi-polar and is having a breakdown. And so Johnny, something of a loner who is most comfortable talking to others in the formalized — and one-sided — setting of an interview,” unexpectedly becomes the sole guardian of a nine-year-old for a period that keeps getting extended.

Johny and Viv are constantly on the phone as he needs advice or she needs reassurance that Jesse is okay. Johnny tells her, with mock mansplaining, “You know, as a mother, you’re not gonna understand this, but working all day and taking care of a kid is just a lot.”

There are so many movies that could be made about this set-up, and I think we’ve seen most of them, from cheesy slapstick to cheesy sentimental. Mills has something far more subtle, meaningful, and insightful in mind. Phoenix, known for showboaty roles like his Oscar-winning Joker, gives a career-best performance here as Johnny, and Norman is a wonder as Jesse, making it impossible to believe he can be acting because his performance is unaffected, pure, and in the moment. It is astonishing to learn that not only is he not Jesse from California; he is not even American. He is British and lives in London. His chemistry with Phoenix is so natural we do not just feel they’ve known each other forever; we feel we’ve known them both forever. They are our family; they are us.

Jesse, too, separates himself from the world by processing it through Johnny’s microphone. And, as children do, he processes the unthinkably sad and scary abandonments of his mentally ill father and devoted but conflicted mother through play and sometimes through acting out. Jesse pretends he is an orphan. Johnny looks away for a second and Jesse disappears. They laugh. They get angry. They make mistakes and they apologize. And Johnny begins to understand that you cannot be right all the time with a child and the best you can do is to be completely present, completely open. In its way, that is what the best movies do, and this is one of them.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, a sad offscreen death, and mental illness of a parent.

Family discussion: What mistakes did Johnny and Jesse make? What did they learn from them?

If you like this, try: “Beginners,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “20th Century Women”

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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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Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues Fantasy For the Whole Family Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Musical

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 5:48 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended occult-style peril and violence, sad death, discussion of parental abandonment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 19, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 24, 2022

Copyright Columbia 2021
They should have called this film “Ghostbusters: Half-life” because we now know that the time it takes to diminish the still-impressive special effects and supernatural action plus a very catchy theme song and off-beat comedy that was cynical but not snarky in the 1984 original to about one-half of the original entertainment value is officially 37 years. Jason Reitman takes over for his father Ivan (who produces) and yet somehow they manage to change what worked in the original, misuse what is new and keep only what shows us how much better the 1984 original was. I mean, how do you put Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd in a movie and not make use of their exceptional talents? How do you make a “Ghostbusters” movie and miss the cynical but not snarky vibe that was the heart of the now-classic? Let me put it this way, but first note: SPOILER ALERT (already spoiled in the trailer, so fair game in my opinion) — when characters from the original show up in this one and say, “Did you miss us?” the answer is “We still do.”

The original film was about three adult scientists played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis (the last two co-wrote the film with Rick Moranis, who also appeared in the film), who with a colleague played by Ernie Hudson start a firm that will capture and imprison ghosts and other supernatural creatures. And it captured something of the gritty In Ghostbusters: Afterlife, it is tweens and teenagers who happen upon some of the ghost-busting equipment when a struggling single mom (Carrie Coon) inherits a near-collapsing old Oklahoma farmhouse from the estranged father who deserted her when she was a child. She moves in with her two children, !5 year old Trevor (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard) and 13-year-old STEM genius Phoebe (Makenna Grace in a lovely performance). They make friends with two local kids Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Podcast (because he is constantly recording podcasts), played by Logan Kim. When Phoebe takes a summer school science class with a bored seismologist (Paul Rudd as Gary) who is investigating the unusual earthquakes in the area, he recognizes some of the equipment she found in the house as belonging to the original Ghostbusters. They were so successful in eradicating the ghosts and other creatures (including the gigantic Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man) from New York that there was not much more for them to do.

You’d think Gary, knowing all this, would not want to open up the ghost-trap, but this not the kind of movie where characters behave in a logical manner because the plot requires them to do many dumb things, except when it requires Phoebe to be an expert at everything from lock-picking to analog mechanics. (She does get a little help from a friendly spirit.)

This one doesn’t come close to the original’s exceptionally deft balance of comedy, supernatural effects, and thrills, mostly because appealing as they are, the kids at the center of the story don’t have the raffish charm or gritty setting of the original team. It’s more of a Nickelodeon version (not up to the standards of Walden or Disney), and the underuse of Coon and Rudd is unforgivable. Like the Stay-Puff marshmallow creature update, this film is the pocket-size version, small in scares, small in laughs, and likely to be forgotten by the time you get to the parking lot.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and extended fantasy/occult peril and violence as well as discussion of parental abandonment.

Family discussion: What surprising history can you learn about your grandparents? Would you listen to Podcast’s podcast? If you were going to make a podcast, what would it be about?

If you like this, try: the original “Ghostbusters” film and the under-appreciate 2016 reboot with Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Chris Hemsworth

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DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Movies -- format Series/Sequel Stories About Kids

King Richard

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including a drive-by shooting and assaults
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 7, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
The first thing you need to know about “King Richard” is that it was produced by three of the daughters of the title character, Richard Williams, and it is an unabashed love letter to their father. And two of those daughters are tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Richard Williams has been a controversial character. Unconventional does not begin to cover his approach to his daughters’ careers in tennis and the royal appellation was not intended as a compliment. But no one can argue with the results of the 78-page plan he famously prepared, with step one having two more children so he could start from the beginning. “King Richard” is the story of the Williams sisters’ early years, first when they are little girls in Compton, California and then a few years later when they are being coached at a large facility in Palm Beach, Florida, ending as Venus competes at age 14 in her first professional tournament.

Will Smith plays Richard Williams, and as he did in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” playing another real-life devoted and determined father, he gives a complex, layered performance. He makes it clear that Richard’s determination is as much the result of trauma as of ambition, as much the result of frustration and resentment over the opportunities he did not have as of his commitment to making sure his daughters had opportunities, especially opportunities no one else thinks are possible.

Actors, like tennis doubles partners, need to be a team, and Aunjanue Ellis as the girls’ mother Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams matches Smith at every turn, just as Oracene was a full partner in parenting and coaching their daughters. Their scenes together show us a deep and sometimes difficult connection, whether she is comforting him as she treats his wounds or confronting him about his failings.

We have all seen a lot of biopics, and they don’t make movies about real-life characters unless they did something big and important. And that is why those films always have some scene where the main character is either being pushed to succeed and another where he or she is being tearfully accused of neglecting an important relationship. This film is unusual because the girls, including their three older sisters (one of whom, Isha Price, also served as a producer of the film) never complain about the training and practices, even in the pouring rain. Richard is supporting them as much as he is leading them. The scenes of the family together, in their tiny Compton home or riding in the family van, are — the only word that applies is joyful. Richard and Oracene are dedicated to excellence in school and in tennis but it is clear that what matters most to them is giving their girls good values and the skills and confidence to achieve whatever they want.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are excellent as the younger Venus and Serena, and there are solid supporting performances from everyone else in the cast including the young girls who play the other Williams sisters and the older girls who play Venus and Serena in the later part of the film. Tony Goldwyn as the taciturn Paul Cohen, a coach who agrees to take on Venus but not her younger sister, and Jon Bernthal as the more excitable Rick Macci, who brings the whole family to his training compound and puts Richard on the payroll for a percentage of the girls’ future earnings.

Smith says that seeing the video of Richard Williams protecting then-14-year-old Venus from an intrusive reporter — and the look of pride and relief on her face, the confidence that he would always have her back — had an enormous impact on his notion of what it means to be a parent. It inspired him to be both a protector and a supporter of his children’s ambitions.

Smith does not go for the easy win here. He tones down his endless charm and screen charisma and tendency to charm to let Richard shine through. In his sensitive performance, we see that Richard is damaged and vulnerable. He knows he is dealing with people who are unimaginably more powerful than he is and that they will find his manner and appearance discomfiting. These are people who like being comfortable. He knows he does not have the luxury of getting angry when they open doors he knows his daughters deserve to go through. He is insistent, not confrontational, and always polite, though he knows that holding back is demeaning and unfair. “You’re wrong but I won’t hold that against you,” he smiles, and it is a Richard smile, not a Smith megawatt grin.

Like all champions, he keeps his eye on the ball and he leads with his strengths. He did something even more important and even more difficult than raising “two Mozarts” — he raised daughters who love him enough to want the world to see him the way they do.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drug references and alcohol, sexual references that are crude and predatory, and some violence, with assaults and a drive-by shooting, and some family conflict.

Family discussion: Would you want to be part of this family? What would be in your 78-page plan?

If you like this, try: “Venus and Serena,” an excellent documentary

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