Finding Dory

Posted on June 16, 2016 at 5:42 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, separation from parents
Diversity Issues: Sensitive treatment of disabilites
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2016
Date Released to DVD: November 14, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01FJ4UGF0

Pixar’s first feature film was “Toy Story” because their then-groundbreaking computer animation technology could only create characters who were stiff and smooth. Plastic toys were ideal characters. Each film since has shown exponential technological progress — the furry creatures of “Monsters Inc,” the balloons in “Up,” Merida’s curly red hair in “Brave.” With “Finding Dory,” Pixar has created its most ambitious character yet, a seven-appendaged, camouflaging octopus named Hank, voiced by Ed O’Neill. Hank moves like jello in water in a plastic bag, each appendage separate, and his skin and shape adapt to take on whatever colors and textures are in the background. Hank is an astonishing marvel of a character, always surprising, completely believable, wonderfully expressive, and endlessly fascinating.

Hank is one of the characters encountered by Dory, the short-term memory-impaired, whale-language-speaking blue tang who helped Marlin (Albert Brooks) find his lost son in “Finding Nemo.” At the end of that film, she tells Marlin that “I look at you, and I… and I’m home.”

Following a flashback to Dory’s early years with her devoted and understanding parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), we see that she is living with Marlin and Nemo when she has a flicker of recollection. Her parents are in California, the other side of the ocean. She knows she needs help to get there. Marlin, still fearful about anything he cannot control, does not want her to go and he really does not want to go with her. But having almost lost his own son he knows how much Dory needs to be with her family, and he knows he could never have found Nemo without her help. And so they hitch a ride across the ocean with Crush the sea turtle (director Andrew Stanton), but then they get separated at a marine life sanctuary, which is where Dory meets Hank.

Dory has been tagged for transport to an aquarium in Cleveland. Hank wants that tag; he does not want to be returned to the ocean. He wants to be safe and he wants to be left alone. He agrees to help Dory find her parents if she will give him the tag. Meanwhile, Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) try to catch up with Dory, with some help from a pair of alpha exemplars of the territorial imperative, British-accented sea lions (Dominic West and Idris Elba) and a scrawny, wild-eyed loon named Becky. Meanwhile, Dory runs into an old friend, a visually-impaired whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson). And there’s another sort of friend, played in an adorable cameo by Sigourney Weaver as sort of herself.

With most of the action in the marine sanctuary, this film misses the grandeur and beauty of “Nemo’s” underwater setting, spending much of its time on a series of expertly executed action sequences with comic moments and delightful characters.  Once again, the film centers on the essential joy/anxiety conundrum of being a parent or a child.  Dory’s parents are endlessly patient and encouraging, though she hears them privately worrying about how they can teach her to stay safe and be independent despite her cognitive impairment.  Destiny and her neighbor,  a Beluga whale named Bailey (O’Neill’s fellow “Modern Family” star Ty Burrell), both have to overcome their disabilities as well.  Bailey has a sort of PTSD following an injury and has to learn to use his echolocation to “see” what is happening to Dory.  The treatment of disabilities is exceptionally nuanced and tender-hearted, not the usual pity or saintlike treatment.  Everyone has strengths as well as weaknesses.  When Marlin realizes that instead of over-analyzing everything he has to learn to think more like Dory, he, Nemo, Dory herself, and those of us who are leaning just a little closer toward the screen, learn to trust her heart and ours as well.

The DVD/Blu-Ray release has a fabulous assortment of extras, including interviews with resident of the real Marine Life, the adorable “Piper” animated short film, “Animation & Acting.” a look at the art of creating a deep and profound connection between an audience and a fish, and my favorite, “The Octopus That Nearly Broke Pixar,” the story of Hank, the challenges and rewards of bringing to life Pixar’s crankiest, most technically challenging character ever. The cast talks about their favorite underwater creatures and there is some background on the story development. There’s even an all-emoji version of the story!

NOTE: Be sure to get to the movie in time to see the utterly winning short film, “Piper,” and be sure to stay all the way through the credits for some extra scenes, including the appearance of some favorite characters from the first film.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and some violence, some mild language and brief potty humor. Even more than the first film, it is a frank but sympathetic portrayal of characters with disabilities.

Family discussion: What is a good way to help someone who has memory impairment? Why did Hank change his mind? What is the difference between the way Dory and Marlin think about how to solve problems, and should you be able to do both?

If you like this, try: “Finding Nemo” and your local aquarium or marine life sanctuary and learn more about the sea creatures in the film.

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3D Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Scene After the Credits Talking animals
concusson-poster-202x300.jpg

Concussion

Posted on December 24, 2015 at 7:54 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of severe brain trauma, dementia, substance abuse, domestic abuse, suicide
Diversity Issues: Some bigotry and xenophobia
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2015

Copyright Sony 2015
Copyright Sony 2015
It is a true story that seemed to have all the elements for a heartwarming, uplifting story about speaking truth to power, told with big stars and lots of Hollywood gloss. And yet, it does not work. In football terms, it’s a fumble.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a pathologist, an immigrant from Nigeria, with an assortment of degrees and certifications. He lives very quietly and is devoted to his work. When he is asked to perform an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers four-ring center Mike Webster (David Morse), something does not seem right to him. His office will not authorize additional tests, so he pays for them himself: $20,000 to prepare very thin slices of Webster’s brain so that Omalu can figure out why a man who was just 50 had amnesia, depression, and dementia, with indications of brain damage normally not found until extreme old age or severe injury. The tests revealed a syndrome Omalu called CTE: chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Omalu wanted to find out how pervasive this problem was among former professional football players. But there was a lot of money and a lot of power with no interest in finding out whether a game — no an industry — that “owns a day of the week” and employs tens of thousands of people might be so unsafe for its players that it put the future of professional football at risk.

He gets an ally in former NFL doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). And while some of his colleagues consider him a troublemaker or even a traitor, his boss (Albert Brooks) is on his side.

Art didn’t imitate life, but it was most likely shaped by it. The 2014 Sony hack revealed memos that raised concerns from studio executives about the sensitivity of the subject matter and the response of the NFL. That may be why a film about integrity and courage pulls its punches. It ramps up the implications of pressure, unpersuasively attempting to tie unrelated professional and personal setbacks to the NFL. A climactic job offer does not have the meaning that the film attempts to assign to it. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is sadly underused as the loyal spouse. And Smith himself is underused with a one-note performance that makes Omalu a cardboard figure. A movie about courage shows very little of its own.

NOTE: Slate’s Daniel Engbar contradicts some of the allegations in the film. The week of the film’s release, the NFL pulled its funding from an independent research project about the link between professional football and brain injuries.

Parents should know that this story concerns severe traumatic brain injury from professional sports with catastrophic consequences including dementia, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and suicide, as well as the obstructionist efforts by the authorities to deny the injuries, some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Bennet Omalu pay for the additional tests? Why didn’t the NFL do more to protect its players? Who is most like Dr. Omalu in your life?

If you like this, try: “The Pursuit of Happyness”

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Movies -- format

A Most Violent Year

Posted on January 15, 2015 at 5:58 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Crime and violence including guns, suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 16, 2015
Date Released to DVD: April 6, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00RNELG5E
Copyright A24 2014
Copyright A24 2014

After three very different movies, we know two things about writer/director J.C. Chandor. First, he is already one of today’s most original, thought-provoking directors, with a remarkably mature and insightful eye, and second, he is vitally interested in the survival instincts of characters who are under the direst of pressures. His “Margin Call” is the best take we have seen yet from Hollywood on the Wall Street meltdown, taking place in one day as a huge financial firm finds out it is on the wrong side of a bet that will bring down the entire company. It is filled with sharp, smart, character-defining dialogue that all but sizzles. His second film was “All is Lost,” an almost-wordless, one-character story with Robert Redford trying to stay alive a boat that is damaged in a collision, and an ending that viewers are still debating. And now, his third film is his first period piece, set in 1981 New York, one of the most violent years in the city’s history.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain star as Abel and Anna Morales, husband and wife and ambitious owners of a home heating oil company. The company is doing well and they have the chance to take it to the next level with the purchase of some property on the water that will reduce their delivery costs. But they are under tremendous pressure, moving into an expensive new home, on the hook to come up with the money for the land in 30 days, under investigation by a prosecutor who is equally ambitious (“Selma’s” David Oyelowo), and being pushed hard by cut-throat competition from his competitors, who harass his drivers, hijack his trucks, and steal his oil.

Like Michael Corleone, Abel wants to be strictly legitimate, but he is not there yet.

Both husband and wife are trying to move past their origins into the upper middle class. Abel is an immigrant who began as a driver for the company when it was owned by Anna’s father, a gangster.  They love each other deeply, but each is by nature mistrustful and secretive.  “You won’t like what happens if I get involved,” Anna tells Abel, and they both know he is right.  Anna and Abel may have some trust issues but Isaac and Chastain, who have been friends since they studied together at Juilliard, as actors have a fearlessness with each other that requires complete trust as actors.  Every scene they are in together crackles.

We first see Abel running through the streets.  This was when running first became popular as exercise.  But Abel is running all the time.  Isaac is always calm and reassuring in his manner, but he has a white-hot inner fury.  That is probably what drew Anna to him.  He wants it all — money, respectability, family.  And he knows that in order to get it he will have to deal with some very bad people and some very weak people and that means he might have to do some very bad things and some people might get hurt.

In his first period film, Chandor creates an atmosphere so authentic we can almost taste the smog.  He has been compared to Sidney Lumet for the gritty, layered texture of the settings and the storyline.  He is extraordinarily gifted with actors, starting with the casting.  Alessandro Nivola is superb as a highly civilized gangster who lives in a home so fortified it tells us how thin that veneer of civilization really is.  He creates a complex and fully-realized world that brings home Faulkner’s famous line: “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, and some peril and violence including guns, suicide, and criminal activity, drinking, and smoking.

Family discussion: How would this story be different if it took place today?  Why does the film begin with Abel running?

If you like this, try: “Margin Call” and “All is Lost” from the same director

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Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

This is 40

Posted on December 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Writer-director Judd Apatow has made the mistake of believing that the audience will find his wife and children and mid-life crisis as relatable and endearing as he does. And there is nothing more fatal to a movie than a gross miscalculation about the appeal of its characters. It’s fine to make a movie about unpleasant people as long as the movie knows they are unpleasant. But this movie asks us to care about the concerns of people who care very little for anything but the most superficial and selfish problems, with no sense at all of how shallow and unappealing they are.

Apatow’s mega-successful “Knocked Up” was the story of a successful professional woman who became pregnant after a one-night stand with a man who was neither successful nor professional.  The pregnant woman’s sister Debbie (Apatow’s real-life spouse Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) provided a comedic counterpoint, coping with marital stress, including two children, played by Apatow and Mann’s real-life children.  In one scene, Debbie and her sister are not permitted into a club because Debbie is too old and her sister is pregnant.  Debbie is devastated by the loss of this important validation.  Debbie is shrill and demanding, constantly blaming her husband.  In one big plot twist, it turns out that the secret he had been hiding from her was not an affair but a fantasy sports group he liked to escape to.

“This is 40” continues the story of Pete and Debbie.  She is still shrill and demanding, still constantly blaming her husband, and still pretty much on board with the idea that her self-worth depends on being attractive to strangers in hot clubs.  In the opening scene, the week of both Pete’s and Debbie’s 40th birthdays, they are having very enthusiastic sex in the shower when he reveals that his performance has been enhanced with medication.  Instead of expressing concern or sympathy or support, she interprets this as evidence that she is no longer as attractive as she was when she was younger.  She whines to her personal trainer (Apatow regular Jason Segal) that she is failing to arouse men and he consoles her by saying that she arouses him.

Debbie insists that she and Pete embark on a course of self-improvement that involves graphic depictions of a mammogram and a colonoscopy, and a lot of resolutions about eating better and unplugging the kids from the internet.  It does not, however, involve any expressions of generosity, humility, compassion, responsibility, or maturity.  Pete and Debbie are aggrieved by the remoteness (her) and dependence (his) of their fathers, but they are not doing much better as parents.  I have a sinking feeling that there will a a future sequel for the girls to work out their issues with their parents.

The movie is overlong and saggy, swooping almost randomly from set-piece scene to set-piece scene, and yet it is all supposed to take place in about one week.  This continually undercuts any sense of forward momentum and Apatow stuffs his films with so many of his friends that we keep having to be reminded of who all the characters are.  And then when we are reminded, we are disappointed all over again.  Segal, Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Charlene Yi and Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) are all trotted out for short bits and some are quite funny (be sure to stay for McCarthy’s outtakes during the credits).  And Megan Fox is a standout as an impossibly hot and possibly larcenous employee in Debbie’s boutique.  This is Fox’s second top-notch performance this year, following “Friends With Kids” — take that, Michael Bay.  There is even an occasional flash of understanding of the challenges of marriage and getting older, as when Pete and Debbie try (but not very hard) to use obviously therapy-inspired tactics for expressing their complaints and disappointments.

But that is not enough to make up for the  inert plotline and unappealing characters.  For a guy who seems to think about nothing more than the travails of self-absorbed people suffering from arrested development, Apatow has failed to learn that the issue is not growing old — it is growing up.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely graphic and explicit sexual references and situations including fertility issues and an “escort,” constant very strong language, drinking, marijuana, some mild violence (no one badly hurt), family stress, and stealing.

Family discussion:  What do we learn about Pete and Debbie from their relationships with their fathers?  Why was staying young so important to Debbie?
If you like this, try: “Knocked Up” (featuring the same characters) and “The 40 Year Old Virgin”
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Comedy Drama Family Issues Series/Sequel

Finding Nemo 3D

Posted on September 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some scary fish with lots of teeth, characters in peril, child separated from parent
Diversity Issues: Excellent treatment of characters with disabiltiies
Date Released to Theaters: September 14, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B00867GHS8

“Finding Nemo” is an ideal choice for a 3D re-release. Its Pacific Ocean setting is majestic, immersive, not intrusive, in evoking the vast sweep of the water and bringing us into the world of the tiny fish characters. Digital and stop motion animation give 3D technicians more options and control in adapting the original material than live action or hand-drawn animation.  That is why the highlight of the recent 3D re-release of “Beauty and the Beast” was the ballroom scene, one of the earliest uses of digital technology in a hand-drawn animated feature. Here they are brilliantly used to evoke the emotional experience of the story.  As Marlin, the little clownfish (Albert Brooks) looks for his young son Nemo (Alexander Gould) we feel the bleakness of the ocean’s overwhelming size and power.  And when Nemo is captured, we experience the claustrophobia of the small aquarium.

It makes even more compelling what is still my all-time favorite Pixar film. In the tradition and spirit of stories from The Odyssey to “The Wizard of Oz,” it is the story of a journey that will introduce travelers to extraordinary characters and teach them a great deal about the world and even more about themselves.

Marlin is a fond but nervous and overprotective father who lives with his son in an anemone in Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef. On the first day of school, Nemo is excited, but Marlin is very fearful.  When he orders his son not to swim too far away, Nemo, angry and embarrassed, impetuously swims toward the surface and is captured by a scuba-diving dentist from Sydney who wants to give Nemo to his young niece as a birthday gift.

Marlin is determined to get Nemo back. But that means he must overcome his fears.  He has some help from Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a cheerful blue tang who has short-term memory loss. They search for Nemo together, despite stinging jellyfish, exploding mines, and creatures with many, many, many, teeth.

The visuals are dazzling, from the play of light on the water to the vivid variety of creatures guaranteed to make an ichthyologist out of anyone. While preserving their essential “fishy-ness,” Pixar and the voice actors have also made them each irresistibly engaging.  The adventures expertly balance thrills and wit, filled with heart and wisdom.  It is unusual, especially in a family film, to find a character with a disability, especially one who is neither a saint or consumed with learning important lessons from dealing with limitations.  “Finding Nemo” has three characters with disabilities (Nemo has an under-developed fin, Dory has memory impairment, and a fish voiced by Willem Dafoe has scars and an injured fin).  All are just accepted as part of who they are.

Even better, this is a film without a real villain.  No one acts out of malice or jealousy or greed.  The dentist and his young niece are clumsy and clueless, but not wicked.  Even the sharks are vegetarians.

An adorable new “Toy Story” short with Rex the dinosaur challenged to get into the party spirit and turns a bubble bath into a rave is a nice bonus, though parents may want to talk to kids about not succumbing to peer pressure.  The addition of 3D is a plus, and it is pure pleasure to see this spectacularly beautiful film on the big screen to appreciate fully every jewel-like color, and every detail of fin, feather, plankton, shell, current, and sunken ship.  But what matters most here is the story, a an epic journey filled with adventure and discovery encompassing the grandest sweep of the ocean and the smallest longing of the heart.

Parents should know that this film includes some tense moments and peril.  Some of the fish have very scary teeth and younger children may be upset when the mother and other eggs are killed by a predator (offscreen) in the beginning of the film.  There is brief potty humor.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: your local aquarium and other Pixar classics like “Monsters, Inc.” and “A Bug’s Life”

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3D Animation Classic Family Issues For the Whole Family Movies -- format Talking animals
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