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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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Profanity: Mild language
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 Lupita 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”

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I, Tonya

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity
Profanity: Extensive very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including attack
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017

Copyright 2017 Neon
In one of “I, Tonya’s” most striking scenes, Margo Robbie as figure skating star Tonya Harding looks at herself in the mirror after applying her make-up for a competition. It is stark, garish, clown-like, and scary, less like beauty than like warpaint. Harding is trying to hide the heartbreak of her life when she is on the one place where everything is pretty and perfect, but in trying to make herself look pretty and perfect she has created a monster. That scene exemplifies the movie’s themes about public and private personas and the way they can crash into each other with terrible destructive force.

In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, one of Harding’s rivals, was attacked by a Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), who had been hired by two of history’s most incompetent criminals, Harding’s estranged husband, Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dimwitted friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Though Harding was not involved or even aware of this plan, news reports of the era emphasized the contrast between ice princess Kerrigan, and blue-collar Harding. In reality, Kerrigan was also from a modest background, but her appearance and routines were more elegant and graceful, while Harding adopted a bad girl persona, calling herself the “Charles Barkley of figure skating.” The problem is that figure skating is not just about skill and technique. It is about the show, and it is about the persona. Judges and fans expect more than athletic achievement.
They expect elegance and grace on and off the rink. They want the ice princess.

Allison Janney is incendiary as Harding’s abusive mother, constantly pushing her and demeaning her, often hitting her, too. With no affection or approval at home, she was drawn to Gilhooly, the first male to pay any attention to her, and when he became abusive, that seemed normal, too.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Stepmom,” “Love the Coopers”), promise us at the beginning a story “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews,” and they deliver. Like “The Disaster Artist,” this film takes us behind the scenes of a real-life catastrophe based on dreams of stardom, hopeless miscalculation about their own abilities, and a distorted, media-fueled idea of reality. We may watch expecting to laugh and feel superior, but the prismatic approach, with characters speaking to us to explain their perspectives (or try to put the blame on each other) is surprisingly sympathetic, grounded, and insightful.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking, drugs, smoking, and violence, including domestic abuse.

Family discussion: Who was responsible for attacking Nancy Kerrigan? Why does the movie call itself “irony-free?” Do you agree that Americans “want someone to hate?”

If you like this, try: “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” and “Tonya Harding: Anything to Win”

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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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The Shape of Water

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, peril, torture, murder
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 9, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

There is some reassuring symmetry in the cinematic bookends that gave us “Beauty and the Beast” in January (the highest-grossing film of the year), a “Beauty is the beast” film with the mid-year’s “Colossal,” and now, in December, another variation with Guillermo del Toro’s enthralling R-rated fairy tale, “The Shape of Water.”

Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, a custodian in a secret government lab during the cold war era. Her closest friends are her chatty, unhappily married colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an anxious, cat-loving, old-movie-watching, out-of-work illustrator. They are the only two people who can communicate with Elisa. She can hear but is mute due to a childhood injury, and uses via American Sign Language.

The film is as gorgeous as any enchanted tale could wish, with a green-blue color palette that evokes the sea and old-school, analog equipment in cavernous rooms and huge, clanking equipment harking back to early horror classics like “Frankenstein” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (the later of which del Toro acknowledges as inspiration), with a nod to princess in the castle stories as well.

Elisa discovers one of the lab’s biggest secrets. Strickland (Michael Shannon) a harsh, brutal, “collector,” has captured and brought back to the lab a creature he discovered in the Amazon, a gilled, scaley human-shaped reptilian (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) who has two separate breathing systems, one for air, one for water. He has some other unusual qualities, which Strickland is not learning much about because he mostly zaps the creature with a cattle prod to “tame” him. Elisa shares her hard-boiled eggs with the creature, and then some music, and then some words, as he begins to learn her language. As we will see, there are parallels between them that make them seem almost like star-crossed lovers kept apart only because they are of different species. Elisa is an orphan who was found not on a doorstep but in the water. The scars on her throat from the abuse that cost her her voice look like gills. Most important, she believes the creature is the only one who sees her as whole, complete, not missing anything.

There is a scientist at the lab named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a secret of his own. There are other people who want to steal the creature and people who just want to kill him because it is more important to keep him away from the enemy than to learn more about who he is and what he can tell us about who we are. Of course, the way we treat him tells us a lot about who we are.

The story capaciously encompases a fairy tale romance with spies, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, a heist, and a musical number without, well, losing a step, thanks to del Toro’s ability to create cinematic magic. Hawkins is, as she was in “Maudie” earlier this year, exquisitely able to create a character of fierce intelligence and the kind of gentleness that is grounded in moral courage. Instead of subtitles in white at the bottom of the screen, her words are depicted in yellow letters floating around her, her face communicating as clearly as her hands. The movie is bracketed with images of Elisa floating. By the end, the audience will feel we are floating as well.

Parents should know that this movie includes some elements of horror with graphic and disturbing images, peril, and violence, including torture, sexual references and situations, strong language, smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: How are Elisa and the creature alike? How are Hoffstetler and Strickland different? Why does Giles change his mind?

If you like this, try: “Colossal” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

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