Barbie

Posted on July 18, 2023 at 7:15 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive references and brief language
Profanity: One bleeped strong word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Kens drink a lot of "brewski"
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 21, 2023

Copyright 2023 Warner Brothers
I came out of the “Barbie” movie feeling better about Barbie’s world and better about mine, and I think you will, too. Greta Gerwig directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach, and it is utterly captivating, engaging honestly with all that is enticing and all that is troubling about the world’s most popular doll and the way she is both symbol and perpetuator of positive and negative aspirations. Barbie is available in every possible profession, from pilot to doctor to President to nine different Olympic athletes, twelve different kinds of chef, seven different kinds of musician and five kinds of singer including jazz and rap. She works at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and See’s Candy, and operates a stall at the farmer’s market. She is a pet groomer, a corporate Chief Sustainability Officer, and she sells Mary Kay products. There are dozens more, plus whatever the girls (mostly) who play with her can dream, but her ridiculously exaggerated feminine shape and essential plastic, consumerist role are concerning. I admit, I had and loved my Barbie, then tried to dissuade my daughter from Barbie-ism. She was given a Barbie and Ken by an aunt, and she loved them. I was wrong. Resistance is futile.

This film begins with all of the fun of Barbie world, as we meet “stereotypical” or original Barbie (Margot Robbie), whose life is one perfect day after another. She wakes up in her Barbie dream house, enjoys her pretend breakfast, then stops by the beach, where the Kens hang out (their job is “beach” — not lifeguard, not surfer, just beach). She believes that the Barbies took over from the centuries-old tradition of giving little girls baby dolls, so they could pretend only to be mothers and housewives, the chance to play with adult woman dolls mastering every profession led to unobstructed opportunity and accomplishment in the real world. In Barbie world, everything is pink and pristine, and everyone (almost) is a Barbie or a Ken. The Supreme Court is all Barbies. Construction crews are all Barbies. President Barbie (Issa Rae) presides in a pink version of the White House. The Barbies love to have girls’ night sleepovers and huge parties with choreography. Kens are just there to admire and support the Barbies. Ryan Gosling plays the Ken who lives for the brief moments each day when Barbie notices him.

Every day is the same and every day is perfect…until one day things start to go wrong. Barbie starts to ponder the prospect of death. Just as disturbing, her perfectly arched, high-heel-ready feet are suddenly FLAT!! She visits Weird Barbie (no one does weird better than Kate McKinnon), who offers her the red pill/blue pill option: does she want to stay in blissful ignorance or does she want to visit the real world, where the dark thoughts of the person playing with the doll are coming from.

And so Barbie and Ken find themselves rollerblading on a real beach, and immediately getting into trouble. For all of her consumer purchases, Barbie does not have any money. When they escape the real world and get back to Barbie world and bring that trouble with him. Ken has learned about the patriarchy and likes the idea of men running everything. The Barbies have never had to face a challenge like that. Will the Kens take over Barbie world?

The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and production design by Sarah Greenwood make Barbie world enticing and Robbie and Gosling inhabit their roles with endless charm that almost disguises the precision of their craft. This is not a parody or a high satire. The terrific screenplay skillfully mixes the silly with the heartfelt and the actors deliver with every shift.

Adorably, Gerwig and Baumbach bring in some of the most strange and esoteric aspects of real-life Barbie history and as we see in the closing credits all of it is real. Michael Cera plays Allan, based on a briefly available friend for Ken. We also see the pregnant Midge, the Barbie who is also a camera, and pubescent “Growing Up Skipper.” And we get a monologue from working mother Gloria (America Ferrara) that ties together the crushingly unrealistic expectations of women that Barbie represents and perpetuates. And narration from Dame Helen Mirren is a lovely touch. The Barbies and Kens are diverse in race and body type, with Simu Liu and Rae so good they left me wishing for a spin-off. The movie comes down on the side of heart and brain, fantasy and reality, and, of course, the Indigo Girls.

There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
Closer I am to fine.

Parents should know that this movie is not for children. There are references to the dolls’ lack of genitals and some mild sexual references, Kens drink a lot of beer, and there is a bleeped out bad word. More important, the film deals with issues of purpose and meaning and struggle that younger viewers may find troubling.

Family discussion: Have you ever played with a Barbie? If not, why not and if so, which Barbie did you like?

If you like this, try: Forever Barbie, a terrific history of the doll, and Barbie and Ruth, the story of the real-life Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Perlman in the film

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White Noise

Posted on December 1, 2022 at 5:15 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Apocalyptic themes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters

Copyright 2022 Netflix
Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise won the National Book Award for fiction. It was an apocalyptic satire about a couple in an academic community who both have a sense of dread and fear of death, and what happens when a toxic cloud causes a massive evacuation. Pretty much everyone agreed that it was un-filmable because so much of its value depended on the book’s tone, which would be impossible to convey on screen. But Noah Bumbach decided that for his first time directed a script based on a book (he co-wrote but did not direct the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) White Noise would be it.

It’s probably even more of a challenge to translate to film now than it was 27 years ago because some of the wildest exaggerations of the satire now seem to be commonplace elements of our daily life. And its reflections on consumerism and the way we separate ourselves from daily and existential considerations are too well-traveled to be meaningful without some freshness in their presentation.

Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a professor at the fictional College on the Hill, married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), a warm-hearted woman with intensely crimped hair. Each has been married three times before, and they blended family includes children from the previous relationships and one they had together. They have a loving, intimate relationship, though both are pre-occupied with a fear of death and talk about which one of them will die first.

Jack is a pioneer in Hitler studies, though he does not speak German. He has a new colleague, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who lectures on popular culture themes like car crashes in movies and hopes to be the leading scholar on Elvis Presley. One of the film’s highlights is an almost rap battle after Murray asks Jack to help him by participating in his class.

Some kind of toxic cloud descends, triggering an evacuation. As families shelter in a gigantic warehouse, Jack learns that because he stopped to put gas in the car, his exposure may mean that he has only a short time to live. The bureaucratic obtuseness is briefly touched on, and then the story swings into trying to find out what medicine Babette has been taking.

Bumbach is skilled at intimate, complicated family dramas like “The Squid and the Whale” and “Marriage Story.” He is not able to find a heightened tone for this narrative with the different directions of its three stories and characters who are more symbolic than real. Driver and Gerwig both give excellent performances but they are too sincere and accessible for this brittle material. The credit sequence is the best part of the movie, coming closer to matching the themes than the two hours leading up to it.

Parents should know that this film deals with apocalyptic issues and family struggles over drugs and adultery. There is some peril and violence including guns and attempted murder. Characters use strong language.

Family discussion: How have things changed since this book was written and the era it depicts? Why didn’t Babette tell Jack the truth?

If you like this, try: the book by Don DeLillo and Baumbach’s other films

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Little Women

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, brief smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death, references to other deaths including death of a baby
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 6, 2020
Copyright 2019 Sony Pictures

You need to know where I’m coming from on this one. There is no book more central to my life than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My mother, Josephine Baskin Minow, has been Jo since she first read Little Women when she was a child, And now our children call her Marmee. I loved it so much that I read all the other Alcott books on the library shelf (I especially recommend Eight Cousins and An Old Fashioned Girl). Little Women has been central to the lives of young women for more than 150 years, inspired by its heroine, who was inspired by Alcott herself. Jo March is fiercely loyal, impetuous, impatient, and a writer, both eager and reluctant to find her own voice. Authors who name the book as a major influence range from Cynthia Ozick, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ursula Le Guin and Nora Ephron to “Twilight”‘s Stephenie Meyer.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story of four sisters has been adapted many times, including a Broadway musical, a 48-chapter Japanese anime series, an opera, and films starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Winona Ryder. The most recent BBC version (of four) was shown in the United States on PBS. One of two major adaptations last year was a modern-day retelling with a quartet of appealing young actresses, adapted with skill and understanding by writer/director Clare Niederpruem.

So, my standards and expectations could not have been higher and it is my very great pleasure to tell you that this new film from writer/director Greta Gerwig exceeded them all. Writer/director Greta Gerwig not only loves and understands the book, she also appreciates that in 2019 we are only beginning to catch up to Alcott’s vision of what is possible for young women and for all of us. Those who do not know Alcott’s work or have only seen the early versions may think that Gerwig has “modernized” the story. But every part of it comes from Alcott (some from other writings) and every part of it is entirely consistent with her fierce, independent, and devoted spirit and rebellious energy. And Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo March yet, her long-limbed coltishness not so much “boyish” as vitally engaged in a world that cannot always keep up with her.

The book was originally written in two parts, but the second volume (called Good Wives) has been a part of what we know as Little Women for more than a century. Gerwig begins the story in the middle of the second book as the now-adult Jo (a teenager in the first volume) meets with a newspaper publisher (a charmingly crusty and wry performance from playwright Tracy Letts, last seen as Henry Ford II in “Ford v. Ferrari”). In case we are not as quick as he is to see through her claim to be bringing stories written by a “friend,” Gerwig lets us see the ink that still stains her fingers. When her story is accepted (with the moralizing parts cut out), she exuberantly races home.

Then, as we will throughout the film, we go back and forth between the two parts of the story, indicated by different color pallattes, the warmer hues for the earlier years, when the girls were all at home and their father (Bob Odenkirk) was a Union volunteer in the Civil War. There were struggles and growing pains, but there was also a sense of purpose and possibility that is not as clear in the cooler-hued older years, when Jo is in New York living in a boarding house, and Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Europe and studying art. Pugh may be too old for Amy in the early scenes, but she and Gerwig give Amy far more depth than any previous portrayal (perhaps including Alcott’s). Emma Watson is lovely as oldest sister Meg (obligatory complaint about what was left out of this version — the scenes of Meg coming to John’s defense when Aunt March attacks him and the scene of her showing off her “new dress” to him). Gerwig’s script softens the professor’s critique of Jo’s more lurid stories-for-hire and his involvement in getting the book-within-a-book published, but the scene of his telling her that the melodramatic stories she is writing for money are not good is still an important turning point.

Laura Dern plays Marmee, a woman of character, courage, and intention. The private moment she takes in the foyer of the house to make sure she can greet her daughters with good cheer on Christmas morning after caring for the impoverished Hummels is a small master class of acting. When Marmee tells Jo that she still struggles with anger every day, we see where Jo got her inner fire and how inner fire can become the foundation for determination and principle.

And then there is Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the sensitive boy whose temperament is protected from becoming headstrong and careless by the example of the March family, their attitude toward work and also their attitude toward fun. Like Laurie to Jo, Chalamet is a perfect match for his “Lady Bird” co-star Ronan, and we could happily watch a whole movie of them putting on plays, attending riotous meetings of the Pickwick Society, and skating on the pond.

It is still one of the all-time great coming-of-age stories of a family and an artist finding her voice. By putting making the early year portion of the film flashbacks that comment on, provide context for, and deepen the “present-day” storylines, Gerwig makes us ready for a perfect ending that brings Alcott, her fictional avatar, and the story of all of us who have tried to tell our stories together.

Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and reference to other deaths including the death of a baby, family stress and conflict, and brief smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: Which sister is most like you? Was the publisher right about the ending to the story? Why do so many women, especially writers, say that this story was their most important inspiration?

If you like this, try: the book by Louisa May Alcott and the other movie and miniseries versions of this story

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Trailer: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Posted on August 14, 2019 at 5:25 am

Writer/director Greta Gerwig cast her “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan as Jo in this latest version of the beloved classic, Little Women, based on the real-life family of author Louisa May Alcott. The casting is exciting: Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

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Based on a book Trailers, Previews, and Clips

Isle of Dogs

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:33 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Dog and human peril and violence, murder, sad death of parents, child injured badly, medical procedures, starvation and disease, skeletons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Issue of white American as the only one who takes on the villain
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: July 16, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018

Say the title out loud. “Isle of Dogs” = “I love dogs,” get it? Even a three-word title of a Wes Anderson movie is a bit of a puzzle box. Anderson is the Joseph Cornell of filmmakers, with every item on screen and even those tucked away and not seen by the audience, every note on the soundtrack, meticulously assembled. It makes sense that this film is set in a fictional version of Japan because his movies are cinematic Bento boxes. Anderson’s most ardent fans love the understated drama and endless unpacking of detail and think there is a deeper meaning in the weirdness. I am less persuaded that there is always a deeper meaning, but I enjoy the singular peculiarity of his storytelling.

Like my favorite Anderson movie, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Isle of Dogs” is a story of talking animals told via stop-motion animation. This is a vastly more ambitious undertaking, based on an original story by Anderson with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, who appeared in Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” and also served as a casting director for this film and provided the voice for the movie’s bad guy.

Anderson’s intricate vision makes for exceptional world-building, and in this film he imagines a Japan 20 years from now, when political and environmental decay has progressed significantly but is seen as normal by the population. Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) is the mayor of the (fictional) coastal metropolis called Megasaki City. He persuades the population that dogs are a pestilential force, bringing disease (“snout fever” and “dog flu”) to the city, and decrees that all dogs, even the beloved guard dog of his adopted son Atari (Koyu Rankin), must be deported to a nearby “island” made up of trash. The starving, diseased, homesick dogs have a bleak existence on the island. And then Atari arrives, in an airplane, in search of his beloved Spots. And a teenage American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) starts to investigate, with one of those old-school evidence walls covered with clues linked together by red yarn. Anderson’s worst and most tone-deaf choice here is to make the one white, American human character the only one with any integrity and ability to resolve the crimes against the dogs and community.

As in all Anderson films, the human characters deliver their lines in deadpan even while experiencing cataclysmic loss, urgent action, or ardent emotion. What some audiences experience as whimsical, charming, and witty, others see as cloying, twee, or claustrophobic. But he is a marvel at world-building and here, as in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” where the entire film is essentially a set of dollhouses over which he has complete control, he is at his best. The settings in this film are an astonishing achievement of imagination and skill, from the tears welling up in the eyes of a dog to the intricacy of the machinery. If he ever devotes as much attention to the humanity of his characters as he does to the brilliance of his props, he will no longer be admired primarily for his singular aesthetic vision but for his characters and stories.

Parents should know that this film includes diseased and starving animals, children and adults in peril, murder, death of parents, child injured badly, dog fights with animals injured and killed, skeletons, some disturbing images including surgery, brief strong language, and references to dogs mating.

Family discussion: Why were the dogs banned? Why was it important for them to vote on big decisions?

If you like this, try: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”

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