Ferdinand

Posted on December 14, 2017 at 9:22 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and violence including slaughterhouse and bullfights.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 12, 2018
Copyright BlueSky 2017

I warn you — a “however” is coming, maybe more than one.

There’s a lot to like in “Ferdinand,” an affectionate version of the book by Munro Leaf about Ferdinand, the bull who did not want to fight; he just wanted to smell the flowers. WWE star John Cena provides a warm, inviting voice for the title character, and Kate McKinnon steals the show as his “calming goat.” The artwork is imaginative and colorful. However, the slight story of the book has been expanded to fill out a feature, and some of the choices are worse than just padding; they are misguided, distracting, even disturbing, especially for the youngest viewers.

Leaf’s original story and the lovely Oscar-winning 1938 Disney animated short are beautifully simple. While most bulls are ferocious and proud to fight matadors, Ferdinand is a gentle soul who just wants to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers. The men who are looking for the fiercest bull of all arrive just as Ferdinand reacts to being stung by a bee. Mistakenly believing that he is a powerfully furious animal, they bring him to the bullring, where he refuses to fight.

The Disney film is eight minutes long and tells the entire story. This version, from Blue Sky, gives us a meandering tale about Ferdinand, bred in a facility that supplies bulls for bullfighters. As a young calf, he is bullied by the others, especially the alpha bull, Valiente, who suffers from what me might term bovine toxic masculinity.

Ferdinand adores his kind-hearted father (Jeremy Sisto), asking him, “Can I be a champ without fighting?” “I wish the world worked that way for you,” his father says before he leaves for the ring. He never returns home.

Ferdinand runs away and finds a perfect home, a flower farm.  He is adopted by Nina, who is so devoted to him that she has him cuddle on the sofa next to her and sleep in her bed, even after he grows to the size of an SUV.

After an adventure that includes a cleverly-constructed scene in yes, a china shop, Ferdinand ends up back at the ranch, where Lupe (McKinnon), his calming goat, declares that she will be his coach for outsmarting the matador.   Ferdinand learns that the only options for the bulls are the ring or the slaughterhouse. He must rescue two of the bulls who taunted him before they are turned into hamburger, and then find a way to survive the bullring.

McKinnon has the same lighting-fast fluidity of mood and character that made Robin Williams an ideal choice to provide the voice for the genie in “Aladdin.”  She is in constant conversation with her many selves, and it is hilarious.  However.  The palpable padding of the storyline would not be a serious problem except for the misjudgment about the presentation of the fatal options available to the bulls.  It is impossible, even for a child, to watch the rescue from the slaughterhouse without recognizing what all of those scary-awful machines are designed to do.  Parents who do not want to answer some tough questions about dinner — or reconcile themselves to a vegetarian menu — should stick with the Disney version.

Parents should know that this movie has peril and violence, including low-key depictions of a slaughterhouse and a bullfight, as well as some schoolyard language and potty humor.

Family discussion: Why were the other bulls mean to Ferdinand? Why were the horses mean? Why did Ferdinand want to rescue bulls who were mean to him?

If you like this, try: the book and the Disney animated version of this story and the “How to Train Your Dragon” series

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Darkest Hour

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 5:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 26, 2018
Copyright 2017 Focus

A bitter debate is going on in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has responded to Hitler’s invasion of other countries with appeasement and many of the politicians are with him. A combination of denial and sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire smugness of those who have colonized a quarter of the planet and are situated on the other side of the Channel makes them confident that they can work with Hitler. But it is increasingly clear to at least some of the politicians believe it is time to take a stronger stand. Is there someone they can call on to lead them in that direction?

There is, and he is still in bed, “insuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.” He is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, disappearing into the character and giving a dazzling performance worthy of the real-life man he portrays). The very inevitability of Churchill’s selection, no one’s first choice, a man who “has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him,” according to his devoted but perceptive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), increases the frustration of the elected officials around him, who continue to plot to undermine his determination to to go to war, if necessary, to fight Hitler’s takeover of Europe. “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking,” he says glumly but grimly. “It’s not a compliment. It’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” gave us a bracing look at the turning point that ends this film, when certain catastrophic defeat was turned into a victory just by escaping, rescued with the help of a citizens’ armada of boats. That film paid tribute to the ordinary men who retreated to come back stronger. This film gives us another side of the story in a more traditional “great man” portrayal of history and it could not have a better subject. Churchill was a master of language, grandiloquent at a time when people needed to be inspired by a leader of vision, a deep knowledge of history, and shining integrity. The benefit of having a central character in Churchill is that he pretty much spoke in movie dialogue, hyper-articulate, wryly witty, and with an underlying patriotism rooted in compassion, not jingoism.

Churchill knows that it is not enough for him to be right about Hitler. He has to get the support of the other politicians and he has to get the support of the population. He knows what he will be asking them to do will involve unimaginable sacrifice. And there is no time. “We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe in the next few days,” says a general. “Should the public be told?” There is no time. And, as yet, there is no plan for a counter-attack and Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill’s good friend in the United States, tells him that Congress has prevented him from being of help.

Churchill also knows what it is to fail, publicly and miserably. Will he make mistakes again? Clementine assures him that he is wise because he has doubts. Even if Hitler wins, Churchill knows it is better to give him as much of a fight as possible. “Countries that go down fighting come back.”

The compressed time period and the urgent conversations with Clementine, member of Parliament, and the king (superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn) are riveting, bolstered by an urgent score by
Dario Marianelli and masterfully sinuous camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Valerio Bonelli. The camera maneuvers through Churchill’s legendary wartime cabinet rooms (a must-visit for London tourists), showing us the cramped quarters and the fierce energy of what is going on.

Oldman disappears into the role, a performance like the famous Karsh portrait come to life. His Churchill is crafty, sometimes impatient, sometimes uncertain, but compassionate, and always sure of what his values are. The Churchills had a famously devoted love match, and Kristin Scott Thomas is impeccable in showing us Clementine’s elegance, and resolve.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” a character says. And with this film, director Joe Wright mobilized the language of film and presents us with an uplifting reminder of what the right person at the right time can do even under the direst circumstances.

Parents should know that this is a wartime story with tense peril and reference to violence and loss, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What should be factors in deciding when to intervene and when to negotiate? Why did the king change his mind? Read My Early Life, Churchill’s autobiography of his youth. Which self will you be today?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” and some of the other movies about this towering figure of the 20th century, including the “First Churchills” miniseries about his ancestors.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted on November 27, 2017 at 6:37 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic violence, characters injured and killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2017

I sing the rage of Frances McDormand, who plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who is not so much consumed by righteous fury as filled with a desperate need for it to consume everyone else around her. There is no better actor to convey fury than McDormand. When she is good, she is very, very good, but when she is mad she is better.

It is seven months after Hayes’ daughter was raped and burned to death and there have been no arrests. There are three billboards near her home in Ebbing, Missouri that are crazy quilts of tattered leftover, shredded images from layers of advertisements brightly urging drivers to buy Huggies or visit the Ozarks. She visits Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who is responsible for renting out the billboards and gives him $5000 for one month. On oxblood-red backgrounds, the stark white letters now say, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

That provokes a visit from the police chief (Woody Harrelson) who is compassionate and frank. There were no witnesses. The DNA does not match anyone in the system nationwide. He wants to find out who did it, but there is not much he can do.

The billboards are unsettling to the town, especially Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is the kind of dim, resentful guy who expresses his insecurities by abusing others, especially African Americans. Only Willoughby sees that Dixon could be a better man. His angry, racist mother spurs him on to worse behavior.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) has a savage humor and an ear for the poetry in the way real people speak. In this film, he shows a warmth and humanity we have not seen before. In one scene, Hayes’ fury is instantly defused when a character shows unexpected vulnerability. In another, she has a conversation with a deer who wanders over to one of the billboards as Hayes is planting flowers. McDormand has always been one of our finest actors and here she gets a chance to inhabit one of her most complex characters and does it beautifully. Whether she is striding around like a warrior in a denim jumpsuit and a bandana wound around her head or unable to conceal a small smile at the ruckus she is creating, she is a force of a nature and a wonder to watch. Everyone in the cast is outstanding, with special mention of Harrelson and Rockwell and of newcomer Jones, a breakout this year in films including “American Made” and “Get Out.” Hayes’ fury is like a firework lighting up the sky, but it is only when it is out that we can see the stars in these deeply compassionate portrayals.

Parents should know that this film includes references to a horrific rape and murder of a teenager and it shows serious violence with severe injuries, as well as very strong and crude language, drinking, and smoking.

Family discussion: Did the billboards help? What else could she have done? What will happen next?

If you like this, try: “In Bruges,” “Fargo,” and “Olive Kitterige”

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The Star

Posted on November 14, 2017 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 6, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony Pictures Animation
Sometimes a little part of a big story helps us see the big story more clearly. And so in “The Star,” we get to witness the Nativity through the eyes of a little donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun), and the friends he meets along the way as he helps Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi) on the way to Bethlehem.

Bo is stuck going around in circles in Nazareth — literally — yoked to a miller’s grinding wheel, his only view the rear end of the old-timer donkey in front of him (Kris Kristofferson). Through the window of the mill he glimpses the big world outside, and he dreams of doing something important, with a lot of pomp and splendor, and wants to escape so he can join the caravan of the king. Bo finally does escape, with some help from his best friend, a dove named Dave (Keegan-Michael Key). He hides out with the newlywed Mary, who welcomes him kindly and treats his injured leg, and then he ends up going with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, shepherds are watching the star, King Herod (Christopher Plummer) is sending a formidable soldier with two attack dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) to find the baby and make sure nobody threatens his right to the throne.

First-time feature director Timothy Reckart brings a background in stop-motion animation to give the look of this film exceptional depth and texture. The action and chase scenes as Bo tries to keep away first from the miller and later from Herod’s soldier show an astute appreciation for physical space and a real gift for making the most of it. The movie’s visual panache is enhanced by delightful voice talent from a widely diverse cast, including the camels of the three kings, voiced by Tyler Perry, Tracey Morgan, and Oprah Winfrey, Kristin Chenoweth as an excitable rodent, and “Saturday Night Live’s” Aidy Bryant as Ruth, a warm-hearted sheep who strays from her flock to follow the star. The stand-out is Key, whose high spirits show us that Dave the dove can be funny but most of all, he is a true friend.

Reckart also handles the tone very well, shifting seamlessly from gentle comedy to PG-friendly action without ever being disrespectful of or neglecting the movie’s main themes. The focus may be on Bo, but it is his experiences with Mary and Joseph that transform him.

Parents should know that this movie includes some peril and violence, brief potty humor, and reference to the virgin birth and pregnancy.

Family discussion: What did Bo learn about being important? Why didn’t Ruth stay with the flock?

If you like this, try: “Prince of Egypt”

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Murder on the Orient Express

Posted on November 9, 2017 at 5:54 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Plot concerns a murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, racism is raised as an issue
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017

One of Agatha Christie’s most beloved mysteries has returned to the screen with another all-star remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” this time starring Sir Kenneth Branagh, who also directed, as the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It does not have the lush glamour of the 1974 original, directed by Sidney Lumet, and the tone is uneven, but the tricky puzzle is still fun to try to solve, for those who have not read the book or seen the earlier film, and the international cast makes it entertaining.

We first see Poirot in Jerusalem by the Wailing Wall, one of the most sacred locations in the world. It is before WWII and Israel is not yet a state. A priceless relic has been stolen and the suspects, as Poirot notes, are right out of the set-up for a joke: a rabbi, an imam, and a priest. Poirot neatly solves the crime and even more neatly blocks the culprit’s attempt to flee. He explains that he is what decades later would be called obsessive-compulsive, so aware of patterns that he becomes deeply distressed when they are not symmetrical. He even refuses to eat two boiled eggs because they don’t match. But what causes him enormous anxiety in life turns out to be ideal for solving crime. “The imperfections stand out,” he explains. “It makes most of life unbearable but it is useful in the detection of crime.”

When he says he is going to take a nice long train ride and relax with a book by Dickens, we know he will soon be solving another mystery.  As his friend, a handsome but louche train company official, says, a train combines three things: boredom, anonymity, and a gentle rocking motion, and that can lead to all kinds of fascinating possibilities.

Of course, in order to have a mystery, we have to have suspects and clues, so much of the film is taken up with introducing us to the cast of characters, a very international group, as one might expect on a train from Istanbul to Paris. It includes a friendly governess (“Star Wars'” Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham), a British doctor of African heritage (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot), a professor (Willem Dafoe), an elderly countess (Dame Judi Dench), an Italian-American car dealer (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a shy missionary (Penelope Cruz).

Some additions to the storyline are more distracting than illuminating. More seriously, they take away from our chance to get to know the very large cast of characters and that takes away from the sense of mystery and the stakes of the outcome.  Shifts in tone give the film a disquieting inconsistency and flashy camera moves, like an extended shot looking down at the characters’ heads, serve no purpose except to make us wonder what they are supposed to be doing.  Poirot is famously proud of his mustache, and so any depiction of the character must have some impressive facial hair.  Branagh’s is close to farcical, making us wonder whether it merited or required its own trailer on set. One thing we know about Christie and her famous creations — they always knew exactly where they wanted us to be. This movie does not.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references including prostitute, some racist comments, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Did Poirot make the right choice? What were the most important clues? What can you learn from him about observing significant details?

If you like this try: the original version with Albert Finney and other movies based on Agatha Christie stories like “Death on the Nile”

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Based on a book Crime DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies Mystery Remake
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