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For Families at Home — Mo Willems Drawing Sessions

Posted on March 16, 2020 at 5:28 pm

Mo Willems, author of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and many more great books for kids has something special for families who are homebound.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Posted on March 12, 2020 at 5:55 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual content/nudity, language, drug use and violence
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Nudity/ Sex: Nudity, explicit sexual situation
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, arson, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020
Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2019

Paintings and movies can both be art or trash, and, in a completely separate binary, they can both be worth millions or pennies. Both forms of expression struggle with the balance of culture and commerce. But in one very important way they are opposite, an element that is literally material. The value in movies is in the experience of watching them, whether on film or in a digital print. The audience is unaware of the particulars of the mechanism of delivery; indeed, one of the great pleasures of film is that it is immersive, designed to be seen on an enormous screen in a dark room so that the line between the art and the audience is nearly dissolved. But for a painting or drawing, the value, the monetary value anyway, is in the unique distinction of the object. Try asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art whether they would swap a Picasso for an exact digital replica of the original. For this reason, the premium attached to the physical object is more important, at least when it comes to price, than the aesthetic merits of the image. A movie is made by dozens, maybe hundreds of people, many of whom never see each other. A painting (except for the high-end conceptual variations) is made by one person whose individual touch contributes immeasurably to its authenticity and value.

Perhaps this is why some movies are so fascinated with gallery art like paintings. Danish actor Claes Bang is appearing in his second film in three years about the conundrums and hypocrisy of the art world (third if you count “The Last Vermeer”). In the trippy “The Square” he played a museum director. In “The Burnt Orange Heresy” he is James Figueras, an art critic working in Italy who might have preferred to be an artist himself, or a curator. And in his first scene, we see he is also a liar. Speaking to a group of American tourists, James describes the story behind the painting depicted on a slide showing on a screen in the front of the room. It was the last painting from a Holocaust survivor, and as he tells them the story of the artist and his sister, we and the audience he is speaking to look at the image of the painting with increased interest and respect. He asks who wants a print and hands go up. Then he tells them it is a lie. He did the painting himself. Lesson: beware of critics, especially when their comments determine the authenticity or value of a work of art.

One American tourist at James’ talk is Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki). She and James have sex and he impulsively invites her to come along on a visit to the opulent home of a wealthy art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger, brimming with wily charm). Cassidy has an irresistible offer for James, a chance at the biggest art story in years, which could bring him fame, fortune, and the credibility he had been seeking since he lost his job at a museum over a little bit of embezzlement. The world’s most famous art genius recluse, a sort of J.D, Salinger of oil painting, lives in a small house on Cassidy’s property. He has not given an interview or allowed anyone to see his work for decades. If James interviews him, it will make his career. But Cassidy wants something in return — a painting. And if James should say no, well Cassidy is not above some almost-genteel blackmail.

The artist is Dabney (Donald Sutherland, deliciously courtly and eloquent, if opaque). It becomes a cat and mouse game with many players, and some surprises about who is the cat and who is the mouse, right up to the final shot.

The various mysteries, especially Berenice’s under-written backstory, are not always satisfying, though Debicki, who was superb in “Widows” and “The Tale,” is always entrancing. The settings, from the fabulous estate to the museum gala and the overall setting of the glamorous world of art museums and collectors, the provocative questions it raises about the uncomfortable relationships of art, commerce, and celebrity, and sharp, witty performances from Sutherland and Jagger make it enticingly watchable.

Parents should know that this film has explicit sexual references and a situation with nudity, very strong and crude language, drinking, smoking, drugs, criminal fraud, peril and violence including murder.

Family discussion: How did James’ story change your ideas about the painting in the first scene?

If you like this, try: “The Square” and “Velvet Buzzsaw” If you like this, try: “The Square” and “Velvet Buzzsaw”

The Way Back

Posted on March 5, 2020 at 5:47 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Profanity: Constant very strong language used by adults and teens
Nudity/ Sex: Crude references
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol abuse, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, references to illness and tragic death of a chlld
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020

Copyright 2020 Warner Brothers
Director Gavin O’Connor makes movies with hard outer shells, about sports (“The Warrior”) and assassins (“The Accountant”). But they have sweet, gooey centers, because he has the softest heart in Hollywood. Which is a good thing. A lot of people stayed away from “Warriors” because the main characters are MMA fighters, but it is a tenderhearted story of family and redemption. “The Way Back” (original title, “The Has-Been,” probably considered too down-beat) is not as powerful a story, and is too close to better films like “Hoosiers,” but it is a solid drama with the additional interest factor of the parallels between the actor and the role.

Ben Affleck has been doing interviews about his struggles with substance abuse as he is promoting his new movie about a man who struggles with substance abuse. Even he is not clear whether this particular role was therapeutic or not. But he certainly inhabits the character with feeling.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a one-time high school basketball superstar who is now a construction worker who is alone, miserable, and alcoholic. He takes a swig in the car before going inside his sister’s house for Thanksgiving with her family. He pours booze into his coffee cup at work. In his dingy apartment, the refrigerator is filled with beer. He has a system. He takes a can out of the freezer to drink and brings one up from the lower compartment to freeze it so that it will be perfectly chilled as soon as he finished the first one. He spends every night at the local bar.

And then he gets a call from a priest at his old school. The basketball coach is ill and they want him to come back and take over. Everything Jack does has one goal — numbing him from any kind of feeling or connection or memory of what he lost. He practices over and over how to say no. But he says yes. And soon he is in the gym, looking at a bunch of teenagers who need training, discipline, pride, and, most of all, a role model.

It might be possible for Jack to provide some of those things, but beginning to care brings up all of the feelings he has put so much effort into suppressing.

The focus is on Jack here. This is not one of those movies where the new coach steps in to give each of them important life lessons. We don’t learn much about his fellow barflies or his family. We do learn about his relationship with his ex-wife, the tragic circumstance that drove them apart, and Jack’s history of bad choices, especially the choice to hurt others by hurting himself. It’s okay that Jack is still a work in progress. But movie hint at possible recuts, with some abruptness and imbalance in the storytelling, which makes the movie feel that way, too.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language used by adults and teenagers, crude references, very sad (offscreen) death of one child and terminal illness of another, alcohol abuse, smoking, and drunk driving.

Family discussion: Why did Jack hurt himself to hurt his father? Why did Angie and Jack respond differently to a tragic loss? Why did he want to coach the team?

If you like this, try: “Warriors,” from the same director, and “Hoosiers”

I Still Believe

Posted on March 5, 2020 at 10:33 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material
Profanity: None
Nudity/ Sex: Kisses
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 13, 2020

Copyright Lionsgate 2020
If a movie is called “I Still Believe,” you can be pretty sure it is aimed at those who already believe. Based on the real-life love story of Christian musician Jeremy Camp, it is set in a world of believers and very much in the tradition of Christian testimony, where tragedy is overcome or at least understood through faith. It is also a sincere and tender love story with attractive stars, tuneful songs, and a score by John Debney.

Jeremy Camp is played by K.J. Apa, who plays Archie on “Riverdale” with dark, handsome features that look like a cross between 90s-era Josh Hartnett and Wes Bentley. He is the oldest son of a loving family. As he leaves home for college, we see that he is kind and patient with his developmentally disabled youngest brother, and honorable and generous. His father offers to let Camp take his own guitar to college, saying that “for me, music is a hobby. For you it is a gift.” But there is a surprise. His parents bought him a brand new guitar, a sacrifice that will mean no Christmas presents. They knew he would be too thoughtful to leave his father without music.

Jeremy arrives at a small Christian college where Kry, a Christian musical group he admires, is performing, and he sneaks backstage to meet the lead singer, Jean-Luc La Joie. He asks for advice about “making it.” La Joie says, “It’s not about making it. It’s about what the songs give to people. What do you want to give to people.” He tells Camp to write what he cares about. La Voie writes “love songs to God.” But lately, he’s been writing one to a girl. Jeremy will learn what that means when he sees the girl for himself and is immediately drawn to her.

Melissa (Britt Robertson), and like Jeremy her life is committed to faith and to music as a way to express and strengthen her faith. This is a movie where the usual falling-in-love montage includes not just walking on the beach but service to others as a way for the couple to connect. It is difficult for her to admit her feelings for Jeremy and that creates stress in their relationship. They are on something of a break and he is back home with his family when he gets a call — she’s in the hospital with cancer.

They face it together and get married, against the advice of his family. They are very young and this is a daunting challenge at any age. But as the title tells us, their faith endures.

Those who are not believers in this particular kind of Christianity may question the unquestioning faith of these characters. There are many faith traditions that would see these incidents differently, and the movie has a closed and circular perspective some audience members will find reductive and exclusionary. But Robertson and Apa make a sweet couple and their commitment to God and each other gives their story a tenderness that even those with different beliefs will find touching.

Parents should know that this movie includes a very sad terminal illness, with scenes of medical treatment and suffering and a tragic loss.

Family discussion: What do we learn about Jeremy when he turns down his father’s guitar and gives his brother his phone? Should Melissa have told John-Luck sooner? When you can’t decide what to do, what helps you?

If you like this, try: “A Walk to Remember” and “I Can Only Imagine” and the music of Jeremy Camp


Posted on March 4, 2020 at 5:19 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Nudity/ Sex: None
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

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”