Ferdinand

B-

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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
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

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Darkest Hour

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017

Copyright 2017 Focus
A bitter debate is going on in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has responded to Hitler’s invasion of other countries with appeasement and many of the politicians are with him. A combination of denial and sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire smugness of those who have colonized a quarter of the planet and are situated on the other side of the Channel makes them confident that they can work with Hitler. But it is increasingly clear to at least some of the politicians believe it is time to take a stronger stand. Is there someone they can call on to lead them in that direction?

There is, and he is still in bed, “insuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.” He is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, disappearing into the character and giving a dazzling performance worthy of the real-life man he portrays). The very inevitability of Churchill’s selection, no one’s first choice, a man who “has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him,” according to his devoted but perceptive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), increases the frustration of the elected officials around him, who continue to plot to undermine his determination to to go to war, if necessary, to fight Hitler’s takeover of Europe. “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking,” he says glumly but grimly. “It’s not a compliment. It’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” gave us a bracing look at the turning point that ends this film, when certain catastrophic defeat was turned into a victory just by escaping, rescued with the help of a citizens’ armada of boats. That film paid tribute to the ordinary men who retreated to come back stronger. This film gives us another side of the story in a more traditional “great man” portrayal of history and it could not have a better subject. Churchill was a master of language, grandiloquent at a time when people needed to be inspired by a leader of vision, a deep knowledge of history, and shining integrity. The benefit of having a central character in Churchill is that he pretty much spoke in movie dialogue, hyper-articulate, wryly witty, and with an underlying patriotism rooted in compassion, not jingoism.

Churchill knows that it is not enough for him to be right about Hitler. He has to get the support of the other politicians and he has to get the support of the population. He knows what he will be asking them to do will involve unimaginable sacrifice. And there is no time. “We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe in the next few days,” says a general. “Should the public be told?” There is no time. And, as yet, there is no plan for a counter-attack and Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill’s good friend in the United States, tells him that Congress has prevented him from being of help.

Churchill also knows what it is to fail, publicly and miserably. Will he make mistakes again? Clementine assures him that he is wise because he has doubts. Even if Hitler wins, Churchill knows it is better to give him as much of a fight as possible. “Countries that go down fighting come back.”

The compressed time period and the urgent conversations with Clementine, member of Parliament, and the king (superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn) are riveting, bolstered by an urgent score by
Dario Marianelli and masterfully sinuous camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Valerio Bonelli. The camera maneuvers through Churchill’s legendary wartime cabinet rooms (a must-visit for London tourists), showing us the cramped quarters and the fierce energy of what is going on.

Oldman disappears into the role, a performance like the famous Karsh portrait come to life. His Churchill is crafty, sometimes impatient, sometimes uncertain, but compassionate, and always sure of what his values are. The Churchills had a famously devoted love match, and Kristin Scott Thomas is impeccable in showing us Clementine’s elegance, and resolve.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” a character says. And with this film, director Joe Wright mobilized the language of film and presents us with an uplifting reminder of what the right person at the right time can do even under the direst circumstances.

Parents should know that this is a wartime story with tense peril and reference to violence and loss, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What should be factors in deciding when to intervene and when to negotiate? Why did the king change his mind? Read My Early Life, Churchill’s autobiography of his youth. Which self will you be today?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” and some of the other movies about this towering figure of the 20th century, including the “First Churchills” miniseries about his ancestors.

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Copyright A24 2017

The Disaster Artist

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fictional depiction of suicide and violence, some scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017

Copyright A24 2017Let’s face it. Failure is more fascinating than success. There are innumerable movies based on true stories about real people who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles with determination, vision, and talent to accomplish extraordinary achievements in sports, the arts, and shaping public policy. Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “The Big Short” help us to understand huge, complicated tragic failures through the prism of small victories. But there are also movies like “Florence Foster Jenkins,” with Meryl Streep as the legendarily awful singer and “Ed Wood,” with Johnny Depp as the legendarily awful movie director, that explore with some affection the stories of terrible failures, and they do it with vastly more skill than the people they depict could have imagined.

In fact, that is part of what led to the failures in the first place — Florence Foster Jenkins and Ed Wood were exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the less competent people are, the more likely they are to be unable to evaluate their own competence. It isn’t the terrible end product that enthralls us as much as the buoyant optimism and imperishable self-regard that keeps these people going while the rest of us are consumed with doubt and insecurity.

The Room,” from writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau, has been called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies.” It is in that rare category of films that transcend “so bad it’s good” and “suitable for Mystery Science Theater commentary” into genuine hit, with well-attended midnight showings filled with fans who come to see it again and again. Like the midnight “Rocky Horror Show” screenings, fans come in costume and with props. An arty picture of a spoon in a frame that appears in many shots provokes a flurry of plastic spoons thrown at the screen. The crowd yells “focus” whenever someone should have reminded the cinematographer that the camera needed to produce a sharper image. And some people get happily tipsy taking a drink whenever any of the movie’s characters say “Hi.”

The film is based on a book co-written by Greg Sestero, who co-starred in “The Room.” For multi-degreed master of literary analysis James Franco, who directed and stars in the film, “Disaster Artist” is not an oxymoron. In his mind, Tommy Wiseau is an artist because he has a singular vision so urgent that he will realize it, no matter the cost, in the most literal terms. Wiseau is said to have spent six million dollars in making “The Room,” much of it as poorly decided as every other choice that went into making the film.

“The Room” tells the story (I use the term loosely, as the script is a mishmash of many unexplained developments and characters, with a plot even more out of focus than the camera) of Johnny (played by Wiseau, and Franco as Wiseau in this version), a successful banker who has a fiancee named Lisa (portrayed by Ari Graynor), a best friend named Mark (played by Dave Franco as Greg Sestero), and a teenage protegee of some kind named Danny (played by Josh Hutcherson). Lisa is bored with Johnny and begins an affair with Mark, though her mother pushes her to stay with Johnny because he is rich and treats her well. The film has extended soft-core-style sex scenes, a weird, inexplicable confrontation between Danny and a drug dealer, and another odd scene with guys in tuxedos tossing a football.

“The Disaster Artist” begins with Greg and Tommy meeting in acting class in Northern California, becoming friends in part because of their shared love for James Dean (coincidentally once played by Franco himself in a breakthrough performance) and dreams of being stars. They move to LA together, with Greg staying in Tommy’s apartment. Tommy is quite mysterious about his background (he has a strange eastern European accent), his age, and his source of income. He is supportive of Greg but also possessive. The decision to cast his own brother as Greg is Franco’s exploration of a mirrored duality in their relationship and there is more than a hint of some boundary issues that may reflect homoerotic feelings.

Frustrated by his lack of success in Hollywood and jealous that Greg is getting some work, Tommy decides to write and produce his own movie. And so we see how many bad decisions go into creating the “Citizen Kane” of terrible cinema. But we also see a very rare example of a film, usually the ultimate artistic reflection of teamwork, that is a genuinely singular vision. As muddled and incoherent as it is, it is exactly the movie he had in his head and exactly the movie he wanted to make. Franco clearly respects that, as Tim Burton did with “Ed Wood” (with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Orson Welles as his stand-in showing one director saluting another). The audiences in the midnight shows are there to jeer and feel superior. Franco, in his performance and direction, is sympathetic, giving Wiseau and his story the film he was not able to give himself.

NOTE: Be sure to stay through the credits for some uncanny side-by-side re-creations of scenes from “The Room” with the cast of this film.

Parents should know that this film includes nudity, sexual references and situations, depiction of suicide and violence, alcohol, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What does it mean that something is “so bad it’s good?” What does this movie tell us about the decisions that go into making a work of art?

If you like this, try: “The Room,” of course, and the book by Sestero, and the bonkers “Beaver Trilogy” documentary

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Wonder

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some bullying and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Wonder is more than a book — it is a movement. R.J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, and its follow-ups, including Auggie & Me, have become hugely popular with middle schoolers and their teachers. That is because it is not a story about disability, even though its hero is a 10-year-old with craniofacial deformity who is starting school for the first time after 27 surgeries. It is a story about friendship, family, and above all, kindness. As the 5th grade teacher writes on the blackboard, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Auggie (“Room’s” Jacob Tremblay) lives with his loving parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), his devoted older sister Via (for Olivia) (Izabela Vidovic), and their dog in a comfortable New York brownstone. With medical treatment to help him see and hear, Auggie’s face is misshapen and scarred. School principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) tries to put Auggie at ease by joking about his name (everyone has something people make fun of) and recruiting three students to give him a tour of the building before school starts. Scholarship student and all-around boy next door Jack (Noah Jupe), self-centered but not mean Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and nice-to-grownups-but-a-bully-to-anyone-who-makes-him-uncomfortable Julian (Bryce Gheisar) show him around, alternating between rude questions and pretending he’s not there.

And then school begins. Palacio has taken the most fraught period of life, when friendships are most vital and the tiniest panic about not fitting in can be devastating and heightens it even more by creating an extreme case. Auggie has already triumphed over his disability, which he barely notices. It is triumphing over middle school that is the near-impossible challenge. Palacio and this film understand that it is this time above all, with so many volcanic physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, it seems so desperately important to fit in, to seem, in the narrowest terms, “normal.” And, unfortunately, because they are still so young, it can seem that the best way to do that is to call attention to the ways that other kids are less normal than they are.

So, anyone who’s ever been in middle school will understand why Auggie comes home after the first day and cuts off his padewan braid, not with a light saber because he’s been made a Jedi knight but with his sister’s scissors because kids made fun of him at school. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with his face.

That comes later. The kids spread a rumor, even though none of them really believe it, that touching Auggie will give you “the plague.” And then Auggie does two things that made Julian lash out even more. He is smart in school. And he becomes friends with Jack and then some of the other kids, too, including Summer, a popular girl who joins Auggie’s table in the cafeteria not because she feels sorry for him but because she correctly senses that he is nicer than the catty girls she had been sitting with.

There are setbacks, as when Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, where he gets to look like everyone else, means that he has a chance to overhear what people say when they think he’s not around.

What elevates this film, though, is its recognition that kindness begins with empathy. By leaving Auggie’s point of view to let us know what is going on with some of the other characters, we understand more about why they behave the way they do. Via tells us what even her parents do not know, that it is difficult to be the sibling of a child with a problem, and that the most difficult part is feeling that there’s no space left for any problems from anyone else. When she is abandoned by her closest friend, we think we understand, until we get to see things from the friend’s perspective as well.

Director Stephen Chbosky (writer/director of another story about young friends, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and screenwriter for another movie about a character feared for his looks, “Beauty and the Beast”) has made a wise, warm-hearted film that is a balm for troubled times. It also just happens to have one of the most beautiful performances of the year by Julia Roberts, who wanted to be in the film after she read the book to her children. Look at her face as she sees that Auggie is bringing a friend home for the first time. It contains so much love, relief, surprise, and effort to contain all of that and more it serves as a one-minute master class in screen acting.

“I’m an ordinary kid,” Auggie tells us. “I just don’t look ordinary.” This is a movie that might look ordinary but is a quiet gem of insight and inspiration.

Translation: Story deals with challenges faced by a boy with craniofacial deformity attending school for the first time, bullying, some scuffles, mild schoolyard language

Family discussion: What can you do to choose kindness? How do you know when it is time to be right and when it is time to be kind? Why did Jack make fun of Auggie? Why did Summer sit with Auggie?

If you like this, try: Auggie & Me, the book by Wonder author R.J. Palacio that expands the story

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Cook-Off

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Take one “British Baking Show” and add a cup of Christopher Guest improvised mockumentary, a lot of processed food products, a gallon of ambition, romantic complications, sibling rivalry, and a muffin-head-wearing mascot, and let it marinate for a decade and you’ve got “Cook-Off,” a very funny movie made ten years ago but just now being released in theaters. Its stars include Melissa McCarthy, Niecy Nash, Diedrich Bader, and the late Marcia Wallace. It has all the ingredients for a tasty little entertainment.

Like Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show,” this is a story about middle-class Americans passionately seeking to outdo each other, with a gallery of brilliant improv actors making small fights into a cutthroat competition. It takes place at a Pillsbury Bake-Off-style cooking contest with co-screenwriters Cathryn Michon and Wendi McLendon-Covey playing sisters Sharon and Pauline Solfest, who work together selling sex toys to married Lutheran women at home but have both qualified for the competition. Sharon (Michon), whose many different hairpieces are a hoot, is outgoing and outspoken, engaged to Lars Hagerbakke (Gary Anthony Williams), who is a bit confused about his identity, in part because he is a black man adopted by a white Swedish family. Her sister Pauline (McLendon-Covey) is withdrawn and shy, but don’t count out her creamed corn.

Also in the competition are Ladybug Briggs (Niecy Nash), the wheelchair-confined mother of a part-time preacher, the very, very pregnant Patty (Romy Rosemount), and the first-ever male contestant (Dietrich Bader), who just happens to be engaged to a former contestant who, after making it to the finals three times, is no longer eligible to compete, raising questions about the legitimacy of her fiance’s entry. Amber Strang (McCarthy with her real-life husband Ben Falcone) arrives too late but wear everyone down with their elaborate explanations and get to compete as well. And a hard-driving realtor is the Mama Rose of the competition, pushing her daughter like she’s selling a house. Meanwhile, Gavin McLeod and Marcia Wallace play themselves as the celebrity judges and the sponsor’s mascot, the guy with the muffin head, is wandering around contributing to the sense of happy (at least for us in the audience if not the characters) chaos.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, some crude sexual references and drinking.

Family discussion: Which contestant were you rooting for? What’s your signature dish?

If you like this, try: “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman”

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