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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Nudity/ Sex: Some potty humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and violence including slaughterhouse and bullfights.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2017
Copyright BlueSky 2017

I warn you — a “however” is coming, maybe more than one.

There’s a lot to like in this affectionate version of the book by Munro Leaf about Ferdinand, the bull who did not want to fight; he just wanted to smell the flowers. WWE star John Cena provides a warm, inviting voice for the title character, and Kate McKinnon steals the show as his “calming goat.” The artwork is imaginative and colorful. However, the slight story of the book has been expanded to fill out a feature, and some of the choices are worse than just padding; they are misguided, distracting, even disturbing, especially for the youngest viewers.

Leaf’s original story and the lovely Oscar-winning 1938 Disney animated short are beautifully simple. While most bulls are ferocious and proud to fight matadors, Ferdinand is a gentle soul who just wants to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers. The men who are looking for the fiercest bull of all arrive just as Ferdinand reacts to being stung by a bee. Mistakenly believing that he is a powerfully furious animal, they bring him to the bullring, where he refuses to fight.

The Disney film is eight minutes long and tells the entire story. This version, from Blue Sky, gives us a meandering tale about Ferdinand, bred in a facility that supplies bulls for bullfighters. As a young calf, he is bullied by the others, especially the alpha bull, Valiente, who suffers from what me might term bovine toxic masculinity.

Ferdinand adores his kind-hearted father (Jeremy Sisto), asking him, “Can I be a champ without fighting?” “I wish the world worked that way for you,” his father says before he leaves for the ring. He never returns home.

Ferdinand runs away and finds a perfect home, a flower farm.  He is adopted by Nina, who is so devoted to him that she has him cuddle on the sofa next to her and sleep in her bed, even after he grows to the size of an SUV.

After an adventure that includes a cleverly-constructed scene in yes, a china shop, Ferdinand ends up back at the ranch, where Lupe (McKinnon), his calming goat, declares that she will be his coach for outsmarting the matador.   Ferdinand learns that the only options for the bulls are the ring or the slaughterhouse. He must rescue two of the bulls who taunted him before they are turned into hamburger, and then find a way to survive the bullring.

McKinnon has the same lighting-fast fluidity of mood and character that made Robin Williams an ideal choice to provide the voice for the genie in “Aladdin.”  She is in constant conversation with her many selves, and it is hilarious.  However.  The palpable padding of the storyline would not be a serious problem except for the misjudgment about the presentation of the fatal options available to the bulls.  It is impossible, even for a child, to watch the rescue from the slaughterhouse without recognizing what all of those scary-awful machines are designed to do.  Parents who do not want to answer some tough questions about dinner — or reconcile themselves to a vegetarian menu — should stick with the Disney version.

Parents should know that this movie has peril and violence, including low-key depictions of a slaughterhouse and a bullfight, as well as some schoolyard language and potty humor.

Family discussion: Why were the other bulls mean to Ferdinand? Why were the horses mean? Why did Ferdinand want to rescue bulls who were mean to him?

If you like this, try: the book and the Disney animated version of this story and the “How to Train Your Dragon” series

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Profanity: Mild language
Nudity/ Sex: Kiss
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2017
Copyright 2017 Disney

Within the first 15 minutes, I cried and laughed, and then did so again a few times, with some gasps in between. Writer/director Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”) has brought his considerable skill and obvious deep affection for the “Star Wars” universe to this latest chapter. I won’t make the obvious Force reference; I’ll just say that he has produced a film that longtime fans will find very satisfying, with a stunning black, white, and red color pallette, thrilling adventure, appealing new characters and worthy developments for old friends, including characters from the first movie (fourth chapter), and a cause to root for.

After the now-traditional opening crawl (basically: the rebellion is not doing very well against the First Order), we have the traditional beginning, right in the middle of the action. As with “The Force Awakens,” we see the I-even-rebel-against-rebels Poe Dameron (dashing Oscar Isaac) in his tiny X-Wing, taking on First Order General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) with not much by way of firepower, but enormous skill and endless amounts pure pleasure in messing with him. Hux spouts off pompous, pretentious threats about how many different ways he is going to destroy the rebellion, and Poe just trolls him while the rebels gear up for their traditional-but-never-old trick of being quick and cunning instead of enormous and cumbersome.

And we’re off — in three different directions, as Johnson weaves back and forth, with gorgeously cinematic segues recalling “Lawrence of Arabia’s” match flame to the desert. Finn (John Boyega) and a new character, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) go off in search of a code-breaker who, according to Maz (voiced by Luptia Nyong’o) is the only one who can help them get on board the place they have to go to turn off the tracking device (callback to Episode 4, where if the old man didn’t get the tractor beam out of commission it was going to be a real short trip).

Meanwhile, as we saw in the last shot of the previous chapter, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (a majestic Mark Hamill, evoking both the farm boy turned Jedi he was in episodes IV-VI and his mentors Obi-wan Kenobi and Yoda as well). Like Leia (Carrie Fisher) in the first film, she tells him she needs his help (R2-D2 tells him, too). But he does not want to be involved any more, as fighter or teacher. And she is being contacted by a sort of Force version of Skype, by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In the last film, they fought with lightsabers in the snow. In this chapter, their conflict is more subtle, more personal.

And the rebel forces led by General Leia are being pushed back, with many casualties. This is a movie where more than one character makes the ultimate sacrifice. And more than one gets a last-minute rescue.

The settings are captivating, including a pleasure planet with an elaborate casino for the galaxy’s one percenters and some important lessons about both sides-ism and Balzac’s notion that behind every great fortune is a crime. And there is a salt-based planet with animals that look like foxes made from shards of glass. Chewie makes a heart-meltingly cute new friend. Refreshingly, female and non-white characters play dominant roles on both sides. And, there is a possibility of another New Hope. The rebel forces — and the Star Wars stories — are in good hands.

Parents should know that this is a sci-fi action film with extended peril and violence and some disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed, there is some mild language, some alcohol, and a kiss.

Family discussion: Why did Ben go to the dark side? What did Finn learn from the casino planet? Why did Luke change his mind?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films and Johnson’s “Brick” and “Looper”

Revvin’ Up the Reindeer with Brady Rymer

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Brady Rymer’s tuneful new holiday album for families is Revvin’ Up the Reindeer. In an interview, he shared his own family’s favorite holiday traditions and the inspiration for his songs about untangling Christmas lights and rainbow candles for Hanukkah.
You have toured with some of the greats — what did you learn from performing with them in front of such huge audiences?
Copyright 2017 Bangin’ Out a Melody Music
My grown-up group From Good Homes did a very special tour with Bob Weir back in 1995. He was one of my idols growing up — his rhythm guitar playing was very inspirational — so here I am with my buddies in a band, years later sharing the stage with him – it was incredible! We were on tour with Bob the day Jerry Garcia passed away, and I remember the show after Jerry passed Bob saying, “Let’s go on and do our thing. Jerry would want it that way.” That night, I saw the power of music to heal, communicate, connect us all. Giving us joy, sadness, hope to carry on – it was all there as we celebrated through song an artist that we all loved and who gave so much of himself. Later on the tour, I asked him how he had kept going after all of these years (roughly 30 at that point). He simply said, “You gotta have fun.” He said he wouldn’t be doing it all these years if it wasn’t fun. So, guess you can just take it from the good ol’ Grateful Dead: Just go out there and do what you do and have fun! Don’t try to be something that you’re not — share your passion and talents in an honest way.
How are kid audiences different from grown-ups?
I struggle with this one because in a lot of ways they are similar. They all wanna get rockin’. They both wanna see the band having fun, and they both like to dance. Both grown-ups and kids have been known to get rowdy; they both wanna hear their favorite songs, they both wanna connect with the artist and each other and experience something. One difference is that it’s hard to do the longer improvisational and instrumental stuff for the kids! No space jams for them! Ha! But I don’t know, maybe it would work if I just asked them all to pretend they were all ballerinas for the next 10 minutes. At the core they seem the same. We are always trying to connect with our music and songs and as people. At live concerts, we are all together for a little amount of time, singing, dancing and experiencing something magical together.
I don’t think there’s ever been a song about untangling Christmas tree lights before — what inspired that?
That’s one of my holiday tasks! Year after year I get to untangle the lights and hang ‘m on the tree – aren’t I lucky! So, a few years back I was untangling a particularly knotted, stubborn batch when I just started singing to help manage the time and frustration. I recorded a little bit of it, and you can hear on the tape the sound of the lights being untangled. That version actually became the basis for the final song, I went back to it when I was writing the lyrics. The original tape of me singing was about 50 minutes long, so we had to cut it down a bit for the album!
Why is music such an important part of celebrating Christmas?
So much emotion, memory, is wrapped up in the holiday music. When you hear it again it opens up and hopefully you open your heart to a sweet time and some magical feelings. Music is a great way to spread the love and cheer. It just seems to mix well with the snow, chill, peace, hope and magic that comes around each holiday season.
What are some of your family’s favorite holiday traditions?
Cooking (& eating)! We usually host lots of family. My wife, Bridget & I love planning a different menu each year, and we create special cocktails to serve, etc. Now that our two kids are older they are involved as well — suggesting recipes and helping along. I also love getting up every Christmas morn to see what kind of surprise Santa has left each year. Last year, because it was so warm on Christmas, Santa moved our entire Christmas situation — the tree, all the presents, the stockings – everything was moved from the living room to our (typically freezing) enclosed deck space where the kids have been wanting to have Christmas since they were little. It was just too cold in past years. So, how did Santa know that the weather was perfect last year? It was so crazy when the kids ran into the living room on Christmas morn expecting the tree and all the presents to be there… they yelled, “Santa! Where’s our Christmas?!”
What was the first instrument you ever learned to play?
Well, I played the baritone horn in elementary school for a bit but it had a hard time competing with a shiny, cool (and loud) electric guitar! Led Zeppelin riffs were not being played on the baritone horn. Around the same time (5th or 6th grade) my brother and our friends also picked up guitars, basses and pianos & we started a rock band. It was the thing to do. After a few nights in my parents’ garage we had a few songs down. That was it for me – I loved it.
What was the first rock concert you ever attended?
KISS with my dad & brother! Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ, July 10th 1976 – I’ve even seen it on Youtube! They were on their Destroyer Tour and the show started with explosions, and I loved the huge rock n roll sound and spectacle! It was incredible. It was a great bill. And the other bands left just as much impact — it was Bob Seger and the J Geils Band. Kind of a strange bill, but it worked. And wow, what a scene, so much to see at an outdoor rock concert in the 70’s! My head was spinning. I think my dad’s was too.
How do you approach writing a song for Hanukkah?
I remembered a book that was in my kids’ preschool classes called “Rainbow Candles.” I thought that would be a sweet thing to sing about and a great way to write about the holiday. I didn’t have any songs in waltz time so I tried it in ¾ time. I also wanted it to have a Klezmer flavor so it’s in a minor key.
What parts of the holiday are most music-friendly?
I knew I wanted to sing about kid-friendly Hanukkah treats like latkes and donuts, dreidel spinning and lighting the menorah. But I also wanted to express the feeling of love, hope, family and joy. The idea of a festival of lights is so lovely – the hope, promise, peace, that image & idea made its way into a few other holiday songs on the album as well. Those ideas became somewhat of a holiday theme. And as Bob Weir said – just trying to have some fun with it all.

Interview: Writer/Director Ron Shelton and “Just Getting Started”

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Copyright Broad Green 2017

Writer/director Ron Shelton understands the way that people — especially men — communicate through competition that can be both amiable and cutthroat at the same time. And he knows how funny it is to watch. In his new movie, “Just Getting Started,” Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, and a cast of great character actors play residents of an idyllic retirement community in Palm Springs who try to top each other in golf, poker, and the affections of a new arrival played by Rene Russo. In an interview, he talked about the differences between men and women, spending Christmas in the desert, and And he quoted one of his most famous characters, “Bull Durham’s” Annie Savoy.

One of the funniest characters in the film is the mob wife played by an unrecognizable Jane Seymour. What did you have in mind with the look of her character?

She’s supposed to be outrageous. Jane said she wanted to come in and have some fun, and she told me she had two different wigs; one blonde, one brunette. I said, “Bring them both and wear one in each scene.” She’s a woman who married into a criminal wealth and we wanted to have fun with it.

It’s unusual to see a movie with Christmas in the California desert, no snow, no pine trees.

I’m a native of Southern California so I grew up with Christmas at the beach. I looked it up and Southern California is on the same latitude as Bethlehem so I’ve always joked about that but half the world has hot Christmases. I was in Palm Springs one time around Christmas and it was one hundred ten degrees and there were dust storms blowing and Johnny Mathis was singing “Let It Snow” and everybody was perfectly happy so I thought it was a good backdrop for not your normal Christmas setting.

Your films often feature guys and their relentless competition, even in the smallest of ways. Why do they do that?

 Obviously if I knew I wouldn’t keep trying to explore it in dramatic ways. Honestly, I think it might be chemical. It is supported by conditioning and the world. Writers are storytellers and forever we have been exploring the why of all that without ever coming to an answer. I think on the other side of guys and that alpha male thing, guys also forget and forgive much quicker than women. All my women friends in life completely agree. Men say, “That’s over; let’s play golf, let’s have dinner, let’s have a drink.” The women go, “Oh, wait aren’t there unresolved issues?” As Annie Savoy says in “Bull Durham,” “It’s wonderful how men get over things.”

Is it different to write for older characters?

It turns out to be the same because I’m an older character and I don’t think of myself as older, so they don’t either. You and I are still thinking about what are we doing next, about doing what are we doing today, what’s my next job, my interview, my script, my movie, whatever. I’m more active than I’ve ever been. I can’t jump as high or hit a golf ball quite as far, but I think I’m a lot wiser. I don’t make as many of the same mistakes. I’m a better parent and grandparent. I wanted to treat them like people and not go to all those usual sort of go-to default reflex Viagra jokes.

They’re toasting the Christmases to come, looking ahead, not back. So are the actors. Morgan’s eighty, Tommy seventy. Nobody in the movie was under sixty except the two young kids and everybody was active and vibrant and full of energy.

You have made some classic sports movies, and of course there is some golf in this one. We don’t get those adoring portrayals of athletes you see in Turner Classic Movie films like “The Stratton Story” and “Pride of the Yankees.” Why is that?

I think we know too much. Television and iPhone and video cameras and paparazzi and confessions mean we cannot pretend that these people are anything other than the brilliantly talented and flawed people they are. Back when those movies were made there were no televised sports. People didn’t know what the athletes looked like. All I try to do in my stories is put the camera and the story where the television cameras can’t go.

Do sports build character, reveal character or both?

Both; without question. I’m a big believer in sports. It’s great training for people, I know it’s a cliché but it’s true — you learn life lessons. People ask me “what did you learn from sports?” because I went to college on a basketball scholarship and played professional baseball. I say, “you learn to lose” You never win in sports. You have good years and bad. You deal with disappointment. You learn to figure out, “How does that make me stronger? How do I put it in perspective with everything else going on in my life?” So, that’s a great life lesson. It’s what you keep in your heart and mind as you play, whether you are eight years old or thirty or sixty.

 Originally published in HuffPost