Posted on June 30, 2016 at 5:50 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief scene with drunken characters
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-style violence, reference to off-screen violence, including death of children, but no characters injured
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 1, 2016
Date Released to DVD: November 28, 2016 ASIN: B01G4N5Q0A
Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney

Steven Spielberg. the director who, with his partners, named their movie studio Dreamworks, understands that movies are like a guided dream. Roald Dahl’s story is about a Big Friendly Giant who collects, selects, edits, and delivers dreams to make people happy and conveys messages that are beyond the capacity of verbal human interaction. Clearly, this story connects with Spielberg profoundly, and it shows.

At 3 am one night in 1983, a girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is the only one awake in the horrible London orphanage where she lives. We can see right away that she is brave and smart, even fierce, as she threatens to call the cops on some drunken revelers making noise in the street. But then she witnesses a disturbance of another kind. Someone very, very large, as tall as her building, is walking quietly — no, stealthily — through the streets.

And then an enormous hand reaches silently and carefully into the window of the room filled with sleeping girls and the very awake Sophie, and grabs her, quilt and all. It is a giant.

He knows how to stay hidden. We see him employ some clever camouflage that keeps the Londoners from seeing him, and then takes off for Giant country, far, far away, but a matter of moments if you’ve got giant legs to leap with. Sophie is terrified. She is sure that the giant wants to eat her. But he does not eat children, he tells her, in his funny, corkscrew, word-twisting language. He has only taken her because she saw him, and he cannot risk her telling anyone about him. He has taken her to keep her from giving away his secret, which means she will have to stay with him forever.

Sophie is determined to run away. But that night, in the crow’s nest of a ship that is one of the many curios crowding his home, she dreams that she escapes, only to be captured and eaten by some even bigger giants. Through this dream, she begins to understand what her giant, soon to be known as the BFG, can’t explain any other way. She cannot be safe if she leaves his house. The other giants, who are as big to him as he is to Sophie, are uncivilized brutes and bullies. They eat “human beans,” including children (a bit less grisly than in the book, but still creepy).

The BFG, whose huge ears listen to everything, even the quietest whisperings of the heart, collects dreams. Sophie goes with him to the place where dreams grow, and she helps him deliver the happiest possible dreams to a young boy and his family. The lonely little girl and the lonely giant get to know one another, and become friends. But the other giants can smell her, and they won’t leave the BFG and Sophie alone. They have to come up with a plan to get rid of the child-eating giants forever. It will involve dreams. And corgis.

This is a slighter story than Dahl’s richly imagined Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, with much of its humor coming from the BFG’s mangled words and his affection for his favorite beverage, Frobscottle, a fizzy green drink with bubbles that float down, rather than up. The noisy and powerfully butt-lifting physical consequence of this downward gas is what the BFG calls a whizpopple. And there is also an extended scene with the BFG trying to fit into the “bean”-sized world, sitting on a bench on top of a piano and using a rake as a fork.

That almost doesn’t matter, given Spielberg’s gorgeously imagined world and the performances of Mark Rylance as the BFG and Barnhill as Sophie. Rylance, whose last collaboration with Spielberg won him an Oscar for “Bridge of Spies,” is transformed via motion capture into the BFG, and does not lose an atom of his ability to express the BFG’s melancholy, isolation, gentleness, and integrity.

Spielberg has always been superb in casting, especially with children. Barnhill’s performance would be remarkable if she were interacting in a built, rather than virtual world. Given that in much of the movie she was probably looking at a tennis ball hanging in front of a green screen, it is truly astonishing. She so clearly believes in what we see around her and to her character’s friendship with the BFG that we believe in it, too. Next-level special effects help, too, with utterly seamless interaction between the digital and practical effects and gorgeous, wonderfully intricate production design that makes the BFG’s home both cozy and strange. The setting for retrieving the dreams is enchanting, though the visualization of the dreams themselves is not up to the level of the rest of the design. But the friendship between the BFG and Sophie is real magic.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy peril and some violence (no characters hurt), references to children being eaten by giants, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: What dream would you most like to have? Why wasn’t the BFG like the other giants?

If you like this, try: Roald Dahl books and movies including “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Matilda,” and “James and the Giant Peach”

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Where You’ve Seen Them Before — “The BFG”

Posted on June 29, 2016 at 3:55 pm

“The BFG” stands for Big Friendly Giant, and it is a new movie from Steven Spielberg, based on the book by Roald Dahl.
There are no big-name stars in the film, but there are some familiar faces, with some of the world’s best character actors. After you’ve seen “BFG,” try some of their other films.

The cast includes Mark Rylance in the title role, and while he did win an Oscar earlier this year for his performance as a Soviet agent in Spielberg’s last film, “Bridge of Spies,” he’s better known for his three-time Tony Award-winning theater work than for movies or television.

You’ve seen him, though, if you watched “Wolf Hall,” where he played Thomas Cromwell.

And here he is as Richard III:

The wonderful Penelope Wilton plays an important role I won’t spoil here. She is best known for “Downton Abbey.”

I first became a fan after seeing her in the brilliant “Norman Conquests,” three intertwined plays by Alan Ayckbourn.

Rafe Spall plays a footman. He was in “The Big Short,” “What If,” and “Life of Pi,” co-starred with Wilton in “Shaun of the Dead,” and he stars in the new series “Roadies.” His father, Timothy Spall, played Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” films and has appeared in many other plays and films, including the upcoming “Denial.”

Rebecca Hall, who plays a lady in waiting, is also from a show business family. Her father, Peter Hall, is a distinguished director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her films include “Frost/Nixon,” “Iron Man 3,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

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If You Miss Downton Abbey: More From Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern

Posted on March 14, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Copyright PBS 2015
Copyright PBS 2015

“Downton Abbey’s” season is ending and it will be months before we get new episodes. Now might be a good time to check out some of the other roles played by your favorite Downton-ites.

Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) may not have hit superstardom until she was in her 70’s, but before that she had a long and highly successful career that included two Oscars. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie she plays a fiercely independent but free-spirited teacher whose efforts to have her students live out her fantasies results in tragedy. In California Suite ensemble comedy from Neil Simon, she was heartbreaking as a movie star herself up for an Oscar, escorted by her husband, a man she loves and who loves her, but who is gay in an era where he could not be honest about it. I also love her in Room With a View as the spinster aunt who does not see much but who can tell everyone sees her as fussy and in the way, in The VIPs as the loyal secretary who saves the day for the boss she secretly loves, and in Travels With My Aunt, a wild story based on the book by Graham Greene.

Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) has a central role in one of the cleverest comedies of all time, three plays known as The Norman Conquests. They all take place at the same time, one in the living room, one in the garden, and one in the dining, so an entrance in one of them is an exit in another. She co-starred with Helen Mirren in Calendar Girls (based on the true story of a group of middle-aged women who pose nude for a fundraising calendar) and with Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel.

Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) stars opposite a Peruvian bear in the popular 2015 release Paddington. You can also find him as Hugh Grant’s inept and awkward friend in Notting Hill, as the foolish Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park, and as the unfortunate M. Bovary in Madame Bovary.

Elizabeth McGovern (Countess of Grantham) appeared in the Oscar-winning Ordinary People as a high school student and romantic interest for the main character played by Timothy Hutton. She was touching and funny in Ragtime as real-life performer Evelyn Nesbit, whose wealthy young husband shot and killed her lover, the renowned architect Stanford White. In Clover she played the white widow of a black man, fighting his family for custody of his daughter.

Also: Allen Leech (Tom Branson) is in The Imitation Game Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) is in Secrets and Lies, Richard E. Grant (Simon Ricker) is in Withnail and I and The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Lily James (Lady Rose) is in this week’s live action “Cinderella.”

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