Peter Rabbit

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 11:11 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor and action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, explosions, electrocutions, references to sad parental deaths and killing animals, human character collapses and dies
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018

Copyright 2017 Sony
We’re only six weeks in, and we’ve already had two live action/animation adaptations of beloved British classics of children’s literature, both starring members of the Gleeson family. One will go down in history as an example of how to do it right and the other, if it must remembered at all, will be the example of how to do it wrong. For the record, Paddington 2, starring Brendan Gleeson, captured the gentle charm of the stories because it trusted its source material and it trusted its audience. But “Peter Rabbit,” based on the books and paintings by Beatrix Potter, tries to make the classic story of a bunny who ignores his mother’s warning and almost gets caught by the farmer when he steals into the garden into a hyped-up, wink-at-the-crowd mess of slapstick, meta-narrative, and story of love and redemption. By trying to be contemporary, it loses the very qualities that have made it beloved in generations of nurseries.

As in the original book, before the story begins Peter’s father was captured by Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) and eaten in a pie. Unlike the book, Peter’s mother is gone, too, and he is responsible for his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail and his cousin, Benjamin Bunny. Peter (voice of James Corden) is reckless and over-confident, leading Benjamin into the garden, which McGregor has covered with scary-looking steel traps. “There are other ways to get a meal,” he’s warned. “But not as fun!” Peter says, happy to risk not just his own life, but the others’ as well.

Peter deftly avoids the traps, but almost ends up in a pie himself, escaping by slipping out of his denim jacket, which McGregor uses on a (tiny) scarecrow. Aiding his rescue is McGregor’s neighbor, Bea (as in Beatrix Potter), a sweet-spirited artist who lives next door and is a friend to all of the local animals.

When Peter goes back to retrieve his jacket, McGregor catches him. It is almost too late for him to save himself when suddenly McGregor, like Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” has a sudden heart attack in the garden, collapses and dies. Though Peter takes credit for vanquishing his foe, the narrator (Margot Robbie) assures us that his death is attributable to “78 years of bad lifestyle choices,” with a merry little montage of McGregor inhaling asbestos and eating high-fat food. Really?

This, of course, is not in the book, is completely unnecessary to the storyline, and is likely to raise concerns in some of the young viewers, especially after Peter brags that he made it happen.

The property is inherited by another Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a persnickety control-freak of a great-nephew who barely knew he had a great-uncle with a farm and never met him. Thomas McGregor works for the famous Harrods department store, where he has a complete meltdown after being denied a promotion due to nepotism. If all of this seems superficial and unnecessary, that is because it is.

His arrival at the farm brings mayhem as he battles Peter and the rest of the local critters for the vegetable garden and the house, trying not to let his pretty neighbor know that he is not as much of an animal-lover as she is.

The movie opens with soaring birds singing an uplifting ballad — and then getting smushed, which becomes a repeated gag. So from the beginning, this film undercuts itself, winking at the audience and then trying to take it back. A joke about today’s parents’ oversensitivity to allergies is followed by “just kidding; don’t write letters!” “Don’t explain the joke,” Benjamin Bunny says. But that’s just what the movie does, constantly unsure of its focus and tone. Some sweet moments and lovely animation cannot make up for a film that is, to use a food metaphor, overstuffed and yet undernourished.

Parents should know that this movie includes some comic peril and violence, but a human character collapses and dies and there are references to the sad loss of Peter Rabbit’s parents, including his father’s being made into a pie, brief potty humor, some body shaming, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What did the characters learn about apologizing? Should farmers let animals eat their crops? What is your character flaw?

If you like this, try: “Babe,” “Paddington” and “Paddington 2,” and “Miss Potter,” with as Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Ewan McGregor as her publisher

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Entanglement

Posted on February 7, 2018 at 7:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler

Copyright 2017 Dark Star Pictures
How often we look back on our lives and think, “If I had just made one other decision, if I only had someone to help me, if just one thing had come out differently, everything would have gone better for me.” In “Entanglement,” a young man struggling with mental illness finds out that he almost had a sister. His parents were about to adopt a baby girl when his mother became pregnant with him and the adoption was canceled. She was adopted by another family. He decides to track down the woman who could have been his sister because he thinks that if he had just grown up with someone who could understand and look out for him, his whole life could have been better. It could have made sense to him. He might even have found a way to be happy.

Thomas Middleditch plays Ben, who is interrupted by a package delivery as he is trying to commit suicide. After he is released from the mental hospital, he is despondent and unmoored. When he hears the story of his not-sister, he decides that he should try to find her. Maybe she can still be the companion and confidante of unique understanding whose unquestioning appreciation would give him more confidence. He does not consider whether he is interested in or capable of providing that same unquestioning appreciation and support, but that’s pretty much the problem. As is often the case, mental illness makes it difficult for him to relate to others, even the compassionate neighbor Tabby (Diana Bang) who comes over to his apartment to clean up and check in on him.

Ben finds Hanna (Jess Weixler), who seems to be the usual movie manic pixie dream girl, but (1) Weixler, an exceptionally appealing and talented actress, makes her more than that, and (2) that is what writer Jason Filiatrault and director Jason James want us to think so they can surprise us with a twist of that tired concept at the end.

Middleditch is a talented actor too often relegated to shy nerd roles like the one he plays in “Silicon Valley.” As he showed in “The Bronze,” he is thoughtful and honest and the movie has a more nuanced understanding of mental illness than most, and an optimism and empathy that nicely balances its bittersweetness.

Parents should know that this movie has a frank but optimistic portrayal of mental illness, including a suicide attempt and medication. There are sexual references and situations and characters use strong language.

Family discussion: How did Hanna help Ben? What does entanglement mean to you?

If you like this, try: “Harold and Maude”

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A Fantastic Woman

Posted on February 6, 2018 at 2:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler

Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics
Chile’s Oscar-nominated “A Fantastic Woman” is a modern twist on the kind of Douglas Sirk or Joan Crawford movies of the 1950’s about women in torment. Those were stories of women forced to suffer indignities but who never lost their own dignity and glamour. In the mid-century, “the problem that has no name” described by Betty Friedan had not yet led to the women’s movement, and women in film and in real life often felt invisible, as though all women cared about was keeping the house clean and the children happy. In this film, our heroine is a trans woman named Marina, played by a trans actress, Daniela Vega. The story is about her struggle to be seen for who she is and for all that she is.

“I didn’t think anyone was here,” says the son of Marina’s lover, who has used his key to barge into the apartment they shared without knocking and announces he is taking their dog. For Marina, still in shock from the sudden death of the man she loved, this is just one of a series of encounters intended to do more than ignore her — they are intended to erase her. It is not just that her lover’s adult children and former wife are embarrassed to acknowledge that he was in love with a young trans woman. They do not want to acknowledge that she existed. They do not want her at the funeral. They want her to vacate the apartment immediately. The police, the doctor at the hospital, the social worker and the doctor she insists must examine Marina for evidence of abuse — all find a way to diminish and misgender her. Even someone close to her has to be reminded to put on his glasses so he can see her clearly.

Throughout it all, Vega suffers exquisitely. Others try not to see who she is, but Marina is entirely secure in herself and in the love she shared with the man who died. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Marina uses the refusal of the world to see her as a protective cloak of invisibility, to allow her to pass from one strictly gendered sanctuary, the women’a locker room of a sauna, to another: the men’s. In order to reclaim something that means a great deal to her, she will temporarily erase the core of her being, an essential self she has fought very hard to claim. Vega’s face as she makes her way from the towel-under-the-arms women’s locker room to the towel-around-the-waist men’s locker room is a brilliantly layered mix of emotions.

In more than one scene, reflections show us characters as doubles. This movie is a double of its own, with art and life reflecting one another so that we see not just Marina but also Vega for the fantastic women they are.

Parents should know that this movie includes mature material, with nudity, sexual references and situations, bigotry against a trans woman, strong language, peril and violence, and a sad death.

Family discussion: How does the movie show us characters who are unable to or refuse to “see” Marina? What do we learn from the fantasy sequences?

If you like this, try; “Volver” and the Amazon series “Transparent”

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Bilal: A New Breed of Hero

Posted on February 1, 2018 at 12:46 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence/warfare and some thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, torture, whipping a child, sad loss of parent, war scenes, many characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 2, 2018

Copyright 2017 Vertical Entertainment
For as long as there have been humans, there have been efforts to divide into groups ranked on any available distinctions: race, religion, property. Stories about those who were willing to fight for equality and justice go back almost as far, and this film begins by telling us it is “one of the oldest accounts of humanity’s struggle for equality and freedom.”

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” is the ambitious first animated feature directed by Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi, from Dubai’s new animation studio. The English language cast includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore and Ian McShane. Bilal, born in 540 AD, was a slave who became one of the most trusted companions of Muhammad, and the first muezzin, using his beautiful voice to call worshippers to prayer.

As a young boy, Bilal dreams of being a warrior. “A sword and a horse cannot make you a great man,” his mother gently advises him. What she wants is for him to “live without chains.” The chains she means are spiritual. She does not want him or his sister to be “chained to anger, vengeance, superstition, or fear.”

But soon he and his sister have physical chains, as their community is attacked, their mother is killed, and they are forced into slavery by the idol-worshippers led by Umayya (McShane), who is more interested in selling idols than being faithful to them. The idol worship is based on superstition and fear, not morality. The lord of merchants who befriends Bilal echoes what his mother told him. “Your master is a slave himself.” He is a slave to his greed, admitting, “I worship whatever empowers me.”

He is also a slave to his fear of Bilal and his knowledge that a society built on injustice cannot last. He beats, starves, and tortures Bilal but the lord of merchants buys his freedom, and makes it possible for him to lead a rebellion.

It is a stirring story, respectfully told. The action scenes are intense and well-staged, but the non-action scenes are ponderous and static. Much of the dialogue is the standard sword-and-sandal faux classical (“Great men are those who have the will to choose their own destiny”), but every so often there’s a line like, “Show me what you got, rookie,” that seems like it came from another movie. The Dubai animation rookies are showing us what they’ve got, and it is an auspicious beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence, torture of a child and an adult, sad death of parent, and issues of bigotry, tyranny, and oppression.

Family discussion: What would Bilal’s mother see as today’s chains of slavery? Why did the lord of merchants befriend Bilal? What do you want to be when you grow up and why?

If you like this, try: “The Prince of Egypt,” “Spartacus,” and “The Ten Commandments”

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The Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Posted on January 24, 2018 at 2:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medical tests
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, zombies, guns, chases, crashes, and explosions, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 26, 2018
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

These dystopian teen sagas generally run out of steam after the high concept of the first one. While this third and final chapter of “The Maze Runner” series is better than the muddled second one, it does not rise to the level of the existential drama original concept of teenage boys (and finally one girl), their memories wiped, forced to try to get through a booby-trapped maze.

Once they get out of the maze, thanks to the leadership of Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), then there’s just a “Hunger Games”/”Divergent”-style race to the center of operations for the evil and corrupt regime (sometimes involving a lab with white-coated scientists torturing people) to rescue characters we know, some who make it and some who don’t, and also rescue the whole world.

The Jeremy Bentham/Trolley Problem issue of having to decide between the greatest good for the greatest number versus saving the people you care about is raised, which is intriguing, but not in a particularly thoughtful way. It also briefly raises the intriguing issue of how you can reboot a civilization to prevent the mistakes of the past, but spends most of its time on chases, explosions, zombies, evil scientists, and, as in all movies of this genre, the idea that hot teens are all that can save us. “If there’s even the slightest chance to save him, we have to take it, no matter what the cost,” Thomas says, which sounds great, but can that really be true? Doesn’t it mean risking the lives of many to save one? You can’t count on the movie-standard running through the bullets to work every time. But we cannot expect too much from a movie where the bad guys work for a corporation called WCKD.

The action scenes are dynamic and exciting, but there are too many of them and as the film edges past two hours it all gets numbing. There isn’t much help from the grim dialogue, which has a numbing effect as well: “We started this thing together. Maybe we’ll end it that way, too.” “They can only poke the hornet’s nest do long before they get stung.” “It’s amazing what people can accomplish when their survival is at risk.” This movie plays less like their survival is at risk than that they were just trying to make it to the end.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images involving zombies, guns, chases, explosions, and medical torture, as well as some strong language.

Family discussion: Who should decide whether a few get sacrificed to save the rest? What is important about the way Thomas is different from the others? In these films, “Hunger Games,” and “Divergent,” how did well-intentioned efforts to solve past problems create bigger problems?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Maze Runner” films and “The Hunger Games”

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