The Aeronauts

Posted on December 5, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril, character sacrifices himself to save another
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (though the real-life character played by Felicity Jones was male)
Date Released to Theaters: December 6, 2019
Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios

Science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” “The Aeronauts,” based on the true story of early adventurers in meteorology and flight, exists at exactly that point in the middle. The “Theory of Everything” stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne play balloon pilot Amelia Wren and scientist James Glaisher, and for most of the movie they are up in the sky, marveling at sights and atmospheric conditions no humans have ever experienced before — or trying to survive them.

When they are in the air, it is gorgeous, exciting, and great fun. The visuals are spectacular, and sound designer Andy Kennedy and his team get a special shout-out for the superb audio effects, the exquisite silence, the creaking of the balloon basket, the clinks of the instrumentation. The never-ending series of life-or-death challenges are staged with such urgent vitality we almost feel that we are in the basket with them.

For most of the scenes on the ground, including a number of flashbacks, well, the screenplay never quite slips the surly bonds of earth. It is much better when they are up in the sky, battling the elements.

Wren and her husband piloted balloons until he was killed on one of their flights. Glaisher was a scientist who insisted that weather could be predicted with the help of meteorological data, despite the scorn of the scientific community and lack of support from his father, who is struggling with dementia. Glaisher is finally able to get the money for the balloon and persuades Wren to be the pilot.

Wren is highly theatrical, and Jones is utterly captivating in an early scene as she plays to the crowd, as savvy about showmanship as she is about flying. It is a lot of fun to see the actress who has often been given more subdued or internal characters do everything  — even cartwheels — to charm the crowd. She may appear to be light-hearted and flamboyant, but it is all precisely orchestrated and calculated. She knows what it takes to get the balloon in the air is not just the equipment and fuel but the other fuel, money.

Redmayne’s character is more like the shy, bookish type we’ve seen him play before. But it is fun to see his growing appreciation for both Wren and the adventure.

Those of us who pull down the shade on our airplane windows so we can watch movies on our laptops should take a moment to look outside and imagine what it was like to be the first human beings who saw — and heard — the inside of a cloud. “The Aeronauts” is best at conveying the thrill of that discovery, or, rather, series of discoveries, and the courage and ingenuity that went into getting up there and getting back down as close to safely as possible. It should inspire the audience not just to look out at the clouds but to dream of their own adventures.

NOTE: Rolling Stone did a fact-check to compare the movie to the real story.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril with a lot of suspense and some disturbing images. A character sacrifices his life to save someone else.

Family discussion: Why did Amelia change her mind about taking James up in the balloon? Who is most like James and Amelia today?

If you like this, try: “The Theory of Everything” also starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” and read the book that inspired the film, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

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Action/Adventure Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews

A Monster Calls

Posted on January 5, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Copyright 2016 Universal

It turns out that there is something even more painful than the most devastating loss imaginable. That is the lesson of “A Monster Calls,” based on the Carnegie Medal and the Greenaway Medal award winning book by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, from an idea by the late human rights activist Siobhan Dowd.

It takes place in the Irish countryside. “We begin,” the movie tells us, “like so many stories, with a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man and a nightmare.” The boy is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose adored single mother (Felicity Jones) is struggling with cancer and the ravages of its treatment. While other boys are gently awakened by their parents and sent off to school with a good breakfast and a lovingly packed lunch, it is Conor who makes breakfast for his mother (there are rows of medicine bottles in the kitchen cupboard). He also does the laundry before he goes to school, where a bully threatens him. He has a frosty grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an affectionate but useless father (Toby Kebbell). So, he is alone with his grief, his fear, his anger, and his paints, which he must learn to use to express them all.

Let’s think for a moment about the title: “A Monster Calls.” Is that “calls” as in “pays a call,” or comes to visit? Is it “calls” as in “calls out to?” Is it “calls” as in “calls out from?”

A teacher says sympathetically, “If you ever want to talk…” Conor’s dad arrives from America, where he lives with his new wife and new baby, and he takes Conor to an amusement park. But Conor does not want to talk and he is not amused. A glimpse of the old “King Kong,” Fear and Fury bookends, and a shiver-inducing creaking noise give us a hint that a terrifying, destructive monster may be coming.

And then, yes, Conor is visited by a monster, an enormous walking yew tree with the rumbling voice of Liam Neeson. Conor may think the monster is there to protect him, but that is not exactly true. He says he is there to tell Conor three stories, and then, he says, Conor must tell him one and it must be true. The monster’s stories have a yew tree connection, as does a possible new treatment for Conor’s mother. They begin like traditional fairy tales but do not pretend that the resolutions are fair or straightforward. The fury within the stories seems to take over Conor and he finds himself becoming violent before telling his story forces him to admit what terrifies him even more than the prospect of losing his mother.

This is a complex, richly imagined film with a deep understanding, clear-eyed but compassionate. The stories it contains help us to be honest about our own.

Parents should know that this film is about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer. There are some other disturbing images and situations, including a bully and a monster.

Family discussion: Which story surprised you the most and why? Why was it important for Conor to tell his story? What monsters live inside us?

If you like this, try: the book by Patrick Ness and “Secondhand Lions”

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Stories About Kids

Where You’ve Seen Them Before — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Posted on December 16, 2016 at 8:00 am

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” opens today, introducing a whole new set of characters to the extended Star Wars universe, played by some actors who may look familiar.

Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso) appeared earlier this year with Tom Hanks in “Inferno,” but is probably best known for “The Theory of Everything.” Her breakthrough was in the lovely romance, “Like Crazy,” and she played Miranda in the Helen Mirren production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

My favorite character in the new film is the reprogrammed droid voiced by Alan Tudyk. He is a very successful voice actor — he provided the squawks for Moana’s chicken sidekick and was Duke in “Frozen” and Duke Weaselton in “Zootopia” — but he has also appeared on screen in a variety of roles, from “Firefly” to “A Knight’s Tale.” I especially liked him as a three-card monte carny in “Hearts in Atlantis.”

Another favorite was the renegade Empire pilot played by Riz Ahmed, who had a breakthrough role this year in HBO’s “The Night Of.”

Forest Whitaker is the Oscar-winning actor from “The Last King of Scotland” and has had an extensive and widely varied career in film and television. You may also recognize him from “Platoon” or “The Butler.” I’m especially fond of his performance in “Phenomenon” with John Travolta.

Ben Mendelsohn is an Australian actor of superb skill. He’s made big-budget and prestige films like “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.” He is superb in a small film with Ryan Reynolds called “Mississippi Grind.” He’s played a lot of bad guys and will play one again in the upcoming Robin Hood movie, starring Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx.

Donnie Yen is one of Hong Kong’s top martial arts superstars. His fight scenes are electrifying.

Diego Luna has been an immensely charismatic actor on screen since “Y Tu Mamá También” when he was barely out of his teens. Be sure to see him in the twisty con man movie “Criminal” and with Sean Penn in “Milk.”

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Actors Where You’ve Seen Them Before

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Posted on December 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Copyright Disney 2016

I know, I know, you want me to tell you how it ranks against the other “Star Wars” movies.  I’m going to say somewhere between “A New Hope” and “The Force Awakens.”  It is a worthy addition to the canon, gorgeously imagined, with striking images, intriguing and richly diverse characters, a suspenseful plot, a worthy adversary, an amusing sidekick, some romantic sparks, and a very satisfying answer to one of the most persistent questions from the very first film in 1977.  And without getting heavy-handed or preachy, it touches on some complicated and timely issues.

Once again, we are reminded that this takes place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, and thankfully the text ends there and we are immediately in the middle of the action. A little girl with pigtails is breathlessly racing home to tell her parents that the threat they have been preparing for has arrived. “It’s happened. He’s come for us.” “You know what to do.”

The girl is Jyn Erso. Her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was a scientist who once designed weapons for the Empire. He got away and has been living on an isolated farm, but the Empire’s Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) has found him. He is there to bring Galen back to finish work on the planet-killing weapon we know well from “A New Hope.” Galen explains why he left. “You’re confusing peace with terror.” Krennic responds crisply, and creepily, “You have to start somewhere.”

Jyn’s escape has been well-rehearsed. She knows where to hide. Her mother was supposed to go with her, but could not resist trying to protect her husband. She is killed, Galen is captured, and Jyn is rescued, kind of, by outlaw Saw Gerrera (a dashing Forest Whitaker).

The grown-up Jyn (Felicity Jones of “The Theory of Everything”) has clearly been taking care of herself — and not trusting anyone else — for a long time. But she is captured by the rebel forces, who have received a message smuggled out by a pilot named Bodhi Rook (a terrific Raz Ahmed). The Rebel Alliance wants Jyn to get to her father and find out how to stop the terrifying new weapon, the planet-killing Death Star. Jyn, who did not know whether her father was dead or alive, and hoped he was dead because it would mean that he was not helping the Empire and not abandoning her, must re-think her view of the world (in her case, I guess, the galaxy) and of herself.

Led/accompanied by Rebel Alliance hero Cassian (Diego Luna), his pilot/sidekick droid K-2SO (winningly voiced and motion-captured by Alan Tudyk in one of the film’s most memorable highlights), a blind monk with mad martial arts skills (Donnie Yen) with his firepower-packing friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and the renegade pilot, Jyn crosses the galaxy to try to rescue her father and stop the Death Star.

So, to recap: good characters, good action, great scope, and just the right amount of fan service. I’m not sure that the digital re-animation of “A New Hope” characters are worth the distraction. And I am not entirely on board with the ending.

No more for risk of spoilers. But there is so much going on, it is worth pointing out some details that might be overlooked in the middle of all the action. Note young Jyn’s stormtrooper doll, an Ozymandias-like massive statue, prone on the sand, the issue of factions within the rebel community, the bigger issue of moral responsibility for actions committed for the larger good, echoes of familiar wartime images from the D-Day landing to hooded prisoners and IEDs in civilian areas.

K-2S0, like Rook and “Force Awakens'” Finn, was formerly with the Empire. It/he has been reprogrammed but a sort of data pentimento has it/him a bit loopy and the result is a dry, even sarcastic wit that adds a bit of a twist to the seriousness of the storyline. This film, more canon-adjacent than linear, has some of that same sense of independence and even improvisation, a welcome waystation before the next chapter of the saga.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi action-style violence, with many characters injured and killed. There are sad deaths including death of parents, and some disturbing images, including monsters. The script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy is wise enough not to try to answer questions about the complex quandaries of oppression and rebellion, but wise enough not to overlook them.

Family discussion: How did the governance of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance help or hinder their decision-making? How did the hologram message change Jyn’s mind? What does it mean to carry a prison with you?

If you like this, try: “Star Wars” IV, V, VI, and “Force Awakens”

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Fantasy Science-Fiction Series/Sequel
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