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Selma
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Release Date:
December 25, 2014

 

Pride
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for language and brief sexual content
Release Date:
October 9, 2014

Into the Woods
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Release Date:
December 25, 2014

 

Magic in the Moonlight
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout
Release Date:
August 1, 2014

Unbroken
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Release Date:
December 25, 2014

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Release Date:
August 8, 2014

Into the Woods

posted by Nell Minow
B
Lowest Recommended Age:Middle School
MPAA Rating:Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Movie Release Date:December 25, 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014

Copyright Walt Disney Pictures 2014

This is not a Disney movie. Oh, well, yes, it is a Disney movie in the sense that it is produced by Disney, which is the only possible explanation for the PG rating (and the slightly sweetened storyline), but this is not the happily ever after fairy tale story time we are used to from Disney. You didn’t remember that in the original version of Cinderella the mean stepsisters sliced off pieces of their feet to try to fit into the slipper the prince was using to find his true love?  That’s because it was, well, cut out of the classic Disney animated version as well as most contemporary printed versions.  But it’s back here, in a complicated, challenging retelling of classic fairy tales where having your wish granted may leave you worse off than you were before.

Parents looking for a movie for the family for the holidays need to know that this is not this year’s “Frozen.”  It is a sung-through (almost no spoken dialogue) and there are characters who are injured and killed, including parents of young children. And the characters struggle with the consequences of their wishes and of the actions they take when they want something desperately. They lie and they steal to get what they want. And they learn that no one is all bad or all good. “Though scary is exciting, nice is different from good.”

Writer James Lapine says the idea came from a conversation with his frequent collaborator, Stephen Sondheim, who wanted his next project to be about a quest. Lapine wanted to write something about fairy tales.  And so “Into the Woods” became that project, a mash-up of many different classic fairy tales with a witch, and giants, and a dark place where the paths are not clear, a place for people who are yearning for something and willing to take some risks.  “I wish,” they all sing as the movie begins.  Cinderella, with her evil stepmother (Christine Baranski) and mean girl stepsisters, wishes to go to the festival held by the royal family.  The baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child.  A boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, who has a voice like a bell), wishes his milky-white cow would give milk and his mother (Tracy Ullman) wishes they had money so they could have enough to eat.  And a girl in a red riding hood (the very gifted Lilla Crawford) wants some bread to take to her grandmother (and some pastries for herself).

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And there’s a witch (Meryl Streep) who wishes for something, too.  She tells the baker and his wife that she will remove the curse that is keeping them from having a child if they will bring her four things: a cow white as milk, hair gold as corn, a cape red as blood, and a slipper pure as gold.  The problem is that all of these items are essential props in other stories.  If the baker and his wife take them, then Jack will not have a cow to trade for magic beans, Rapunzel will not have hair to let down so her prince can climb the tower, Red Riding Hood will not be able to go to her grandmother’s house, and Cinderella’s prince will not be able to find her.  What happens to wishes when they cancel each other out? When one person’s wish is another’s nightmare? And when the handsome prince explains that he was raised to be Charming, but not necessarily Sincere? Is there any good in being good?

The characters explore themes of innocence, and the competing urges to protect children by keeping them from knowing about the dangers of the world and to protect them by making sure they understand those dangers. “How do you say it will all be all right/When you know that it might not be true?”

Even the witch tries to protect her (stolen) daughter from the scary world outside her tower. But children do not listen. They will grow up and want to leave, even if it means learning “secrets I never wanted to know,” as Red Riding Hood sings thoughtfully, after she is rescued from the belly of the wolf. On the other hand “children will listen,” sometimes when we don’t want them to, so we need to be careful in setting a good example and in taking care of them. And somehow, it is in taking care of them we become most fully ourselves. “Fairy tales understood us before we understood them,” we are told. This exploration of fairy tale themes shows us that they still understand us better than we understand ourselves.

Parents should know that this film includes fairy tale/fantasy peril and violence with some characters injured and killed (including two parents of children), some disturbing images and troubling situations, mild sexual references and non-explicit situations with some kissing.

Family Discussion:  What is your favorite fairy tale and why?  In the song where everyone blames someone else, who is right?

If you like this, try:  Revisionist fairy tales “Ella Enchanted,” “Stardust,” and “Ever After” and, for more from Sondheim, Six by Sondheim and Sondheim: The Birthday Concert

Unbroken

posted by Nell Minow

Copyright 2014 Universal Pictures

Copyright 2014 Universal Pictures

Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie breaks into the top ranks of American directors with “Unbroken,” showing an exceptional understanding not just of actors, but of tone, scale, and letting the camera tell the story. Working with the magnificent cinematography of Roger Deakins (“True Grit,” “Skyfall”), she adopts a classical style well-suited to the WWII setting, but every choice is careful, thoughtful, and powerful.

Based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand, this is the story of Louis Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants. He was a rebellious kid who became an Olympic athlete. His bomber plane crashed over the Pacific, and survived for 47 days at sea, before being captured, with one surviving crewmate, by the Japanese. In the prison camp, he was singled out for horrific abuse and repeatedly beaten.

The screenplay by the famously off-beat Joel and Ethan Coen is straightforward, direct, and sincere, keeping the focus on the war years, with the incidents from Zamperini’s past brought it primarily to show us how he relies on his memories to keep going. “Nobody’s chasing me,” he tells his brother who is urging him to run faster as he trains for a race. “I’m chasing you,” his brother tells him. That internalized sense of mission helps him hold onto the idea of his own power as the brutal Japanese captors try to take everything away from him.

The opening scene puts us in the sky, and Jolie superbly evokes the thrill and the terror of flying on a bombing mission in aircraft that seem barely past the era of the Wright brothers. The crash scene is vertiginously disorienting, Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini with an effortless masculinity, understanding that it has nothing to do with macho posturing, just an imperishable sense of integrity, courage, and honor. O’Connell, Finn Witrock (“Noah”), and Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time”) perfectly capture the rhythms of an experienced crew, some amiable wisecracks and bravado to recognize the perilousness of their situation, but always focused, on task, and always, always, putting the team first.

We become so attached that it is sharply painful to see the characters experience such deprivation and abusive treatment. Japanese pop star Miyavi (real name Takamasa Ishihara) plays the sadistic Mutsushiro Watanabe, known as Bird. He knows of Zamperini’s celebrity as an athlete and sees that he is a symbol to the other prisoners. If the Bird can break Zamperini, it will crush the morale of the whole camp. So, he singles Zamperini out for beatings and mind games. But Zamperini knows that “we beat them by making it to the end of the war alive.” He simply will not give up, and defining his own sense of what it means to win allows him to maintain a sense of control that is his most powerful weapon.

It is gorgeously filmed, superbly acted, and directed with great sensitivity and compassion, but the real impact of the film comes at the end, when we learn through a few simple titles, what happened to Zamperini after the war. Even Jolie recognizes that there is nothing she can put on screen to match the real-life footage of Zamperini, back in Japan at four days before his 81st birthday, running with the Olympic torch.

Parents should know that this movie includes very intense and disturbing wartime peril and violence, with a plane crash, an extended period lost at sea, and grueling prison camp abuse, and some strong language including racist epithets. A school-age bullies harass and punch a character and a parent beats a child with a belt.

Family Discussion: What was the toughest challenge for Louis? Why didn’t he give up? Why did he forgive his captors?

If you like this, try: the book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, and Zamperini’s own book, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life, along with the films Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, also based on real-life WWII stories of American prisoners of war.

Big Eyes

posted by Nell Minow
B+
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating:Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Movie Release Date:December 25, 2014
Copyright Weinstein Company 2014

Copyright Weinstein Company 2014

In Woody Allen’s 1973 film “Sleeper,” set in a decadent future, Diane Keaton plays a superficial socialite who tries to think of the highest compliment she can give to an amateurish painting.  “Oh, it’s Keane! It’s pure Keane!” she exclaims.  Audiences of that time would recognize that reference to Walter Keane, responsible for the wildly if inexplicably popular “big eyes” paintings of sad-looking waifs.  When the concept of “kitsch” (cheap, popular, low-brow, and corny “art”) first came to the United States in the 1970’s, the Keane images were often used as an example.

Note that word “responsible.”  Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) was “responsible” for the success of the paintings but he was not responsible for producing them.  It was revealed in a dramatic trial that while Walter Keane claimed credit as the sole artist behind the paintings (and prints and books), he had never put a brush to canvas.  Every one of the paintings was created by the only artist in the family, his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams).

Director Tim Burton, whose film about notoriously awful movie director Ed Wood is one of his best, has created another very good film about very bad art.  Like that film, “Big Eyes” is highly stylized, with heightened period detail exaggerated to reflect and comment on the art that it depicts.  At one point, in some distress, Margaret pushes a shopping cart through a grocery story, seeing the big eyes in the faces of everyone she looks at.

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This film also draws on the 60’s era beginning stages of the women’s movement to anchor the story.  Margaret took her daughter and left her first husband at a time when most middle class women were expected to stay home and defer to their husbands.  She arrived in San Francisco at the dawn of the “consciousness raising” era, at the epicenter of movements advocating more focus on individual needs and personal fulfillment.  But Margaret still thought of herself as powerless in her relationship with Walter, in part because it was her nature and the way she was raised to defer and get along, partly because she was dependant on him.  She married him in a hurry because her ex-husband was threatening to sue her for custody at a time when single mothers who left their husbands and had to find jobs had very few rights.  “I’m a divorcee with a child,” she tells a friend.  “Walter is a blessing.”

It was also partly because she loved him, at first.  And it was also because she might be pretty good at painting the pictures, but he was undeniably a world-class genius at selling them.

Walter Keene was good at marketing up: he sold to movie stars and appeared as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  He got a commission for a mural at the World’s Fair.  And he was even better at marketing down. When he noticed that people who could not afford the paintings were taking home posters from the gallery, he realized that there was an opportunity there.  “Would you rather sell one $500 painting or a million crappy reproduced posters?”  Pretty soon there were Keane images for every budget, with the originals in an art gallery and the copies in stores, alongside kitchen utensils and t-shirts.

Margaret signed her work “Keane,” and Walter slipped easily into taking credit for it.  He told Margaret (correctly) that no one took women artists seriously and that (also correct) that he is willing to do the kind of glad-handing and public appearances that she is not.  So, she stays locked in her studio painting all the time, increasingly isolated, finally even from her own sense of who she is.

The eerie look in the big eyes of the children in the paintings begins to seem haunting. Margaret realizes that she has to leave another husband. And she has to tell the truth.

Tim Burton has a story with the grotesquerie built in, not just the outlandish images but the turbulence of the era. Waltz has the showier role and delivers as a man whose ebullience mutates into a grandiosity from which there was no return. Adams, as the woman whose passion for expression grows — finally — into the ability to speak for herself with her voice as well as her brush.

Parents should know that this film includes some disturbing themes including emotional abuse, broken marriages, fraud, some sexual references, and brief strong language.

Family Discussion:  Who was responsible for the success of the big eye paintings?  Why did Walter lie and why did Margaret let him?

If you like this, try:  “Ed Wood” from the same director

George Bailey’s Christmas: It’s A Wonderful Life Closing Scenes

posted by Nell Minow
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