When the dog died, I said to myself, “They are gonna run out of trowels if they keep on laying it on this thick.”
It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that the family dog dies halfway through “Wonder.” There can be no true spoilers in “Wonder,” possibly the most predictable movie ever put to film.
But that’s okay. It doesn’t set out to be Chekov. “Wonder”has a simple, specific goal in mind: to remind children (and adults) that kindness matters; that people are not always what they seem; that we all need mercy sometimes; and that strength and goodness ripple outward. And it achieves that goal.
Movie image: www.wonder.movie
Early on in the animated movie Moana (2016), the Polynesian chieftain’s daughter has an adorable pet pig who’s always getting into amusing scrapes. You think, as a seasoned Disney audience, that you’ve identified the heroine’s big-eyed, wordless sidekick.
But then Moana just sails off without her pig, and she accidentally and reluctantly acquires a brainless, completely un-cute chicken for a sidekick instead.
This switcheroo feels like a deliberate nose-thumb to predictable Disney tropes. Moana’s constant companion often provides comic relief, but not as a cutesy break from the story. Instead, she has to break away from her own concerns and preserve him from death countless times, because that’s the kind of person she is. And so we get our first clue that Moana is not your typical Disney princess.
Here she is as a baby:
She wants very much to pick up the beautiful shell that is being pulled back out to sea, but makes herself protect the baby turtle, instead. She’s rewarded not for who is she is, but for what she does.
And so the movie departs from typical Disney fare in a more important but less obvious way than the chicken sidekick. It’s instantly established that she’s a strong, determined, spirited girl who is different from the rest, and she’s going to end up disobeying her father and achieving something remarkable, a la Ariel/Belle/Pocahontas/Mulan/Et Al, setting herself apart from the people who want her to stay home, be good, take no chances, etc.
But! While Moana does disobey her father, she has an excellent, self-sacrificial reason for doing so. In fact, she has the same goals as her father has, and she ends up achieving what he has taught her from babyhood that it’s her duty to achieve.
So this is not yet another story where Ms. Lovely Rebel flips her hair at the patriarchy and is rewarded handsomely for betraying everyone who loves her. Instead, she is a good, loving daughter who follows her calling, rather than following her heart. Melanie Bettinelli goes into this refreshing theme in more detail. Obedience is good, but it’s in service to something greater, and sometimes you have to just go serve something greater more directly.
Which leads me to another appealing theme in Moana: There’s a lot about being chosen and being special and having a mission and fulfilling your destiny; but every single character also very clearly has free will, along with being chosen to act. Everyone makes a choice: Maui makes several choices; even the grandmother says, as she gets her (later significant) stingray tattoo, “I hope I made the right choice.”
Moana decides at one point that she can’t or won’t go on any further, and returns the magical whatsit to the ocean. She quits and tells the ocean to choose someone else. And the ocean accepts it.
She was the chosen one, but she still has a choice herself, and she is free to crap out, which she does. (Spoiler: She later changes her mind, and Does the Thing after all, and it’s awesome.) The ocean helps them and sometimes outright saves them, but they have to do a lot more helping of themselves, by deciding to be who they are meant to be.
It felt, for an animated Polynesian myth, an awful lot like how life really works.
Just as Moana discovers that she can fulfill what her father has taught her while still disobeying his explicit command (like her ancestors, finding new islands while keeping her home in mind), she learns that her mission is somewhat different (and quite a bit harder) than she originally thought. She thought she just had to fulfill the letter of the law, act out the myth, and the rest would fall into place. Turns out she has to get a lot more involved than that. This, too, felt a lot like real life.
And if we’re going to talk about the message that young girls are receiving from their cartoon heroines, I thoroughly endorse this one: Yes, you have a vocation, and yes, you need to follow it. No, that doesn’t mean everything will automatically sail smoothly toward your happy ending. At one point, Maui is horrified to find that Moana doesn’t actually know how to sail. She draws herself up and says, with feeble bravado, “I . . . am self-taught.” Yeah, that’s not good enough. Following your heart will only take you so far. You have to not only know what your goal is, but you have to learn how to get there.
This theme of free will choices leads up very neatly to the astonishing and tremendously satisfying climax of the movie, when Moana confronts the great lava demon and reminds her that she, too, has a choice.
Hot damn! That scene is so good (the above clip is only a little bit of it). Best animation I’ve seen in a long time, and very moving.
Other things I liked:
The plot was coherent, and the several themes worked well together. The only messy, unnecessary part was the coconut pirate scene. Seemed like a blatant bid for toy sales; and my old brain couldn’t understand what it was seeing, with all that hopping around and things exploding. But it didn’t last too long.
The heroine had a very pleasant singing voice. Not too nasal or brazen. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.
All of the characters were likeable and interesting. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.
It was weird. I don’t know much about Polynesian mythology, but the story was odd and occasionally harsh enough that I suspect they didn’t mess with the myth too much.
There’s no love story, at all. It’s just not that kind of story. The kid is maybe fourteen years old, and she has a lot going on. No boys need apply at this juncture.
A few minor complaints: The pacing was a little off. Some scenes were rushed and cluttered, and others were a little repetitious; but overall, it moved along well.
The mother was incredibly bland. They might as well have done the traditional Disney Dead Mother thing. She does explain her husband’s motivation for cracking down on Moana, and she helps her pack for the voyage, but anyone could have done that. This is a minor complaint, and is probably me projecting.
Several scenes throughout the movie captured something so exhilarating and joyful, I was amazed. The vision of her ancestors is a thing of beauty:
It is a captivating and rejuvenating movie. See it!
Might be scary for younger kids, depending on how sensitive they are.
Here’s how we’re entertaining ourselves these days:
What We Do In the Shadows (2014)
Currently streaming on Amazon Prime. A funny, grisly, low-budget mockumentary following modern-day vampires who share a flat in New Zealand. I actually conked out before I could see the last twenty minutes or so, but it kept me giggling throughout, especially the parts where they meet a pack of werewolves (not swearwolves):
Looks like we’ve got another phrase entering the family lexicon. Not for kids or sensitive viewers. Goofy and gross and a little bit sweet. Features a few of the actors from Flight of the Conchords (which I still haven’t seen).
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
Reading again after many years and wondering if there’s any way this book could have been written in 2017 without rioting. Wolfe is merciless to everyone, of course, black or white, rich or poor, connected or unconnected, but man is he merciless. Change.org would have had his head on a pike.
Anyway, the writing is better than I remembered – self-indulgent, but he deserves to be indulged. Reading it is like shamefully, hungrily working your way through an entire platter of eclairs all by yourself. I was blown away at how he allowed the facts of the central event to unfold gradually over the course of hundreds of pages, letting cowards and manipulators tell more truth than the (relatively) innocent. Should be required reading for any number of reasons.
Michael Kiwanuka’s latest album, Love and Hate (2017). Here’s one of the best songs, “Cold Little Heart”
His voice just tears me up. He sounds like a faithful man who’s being tried. The whole album is fantastic, and the producers (including Dangermouse) keep you on your toes.
Tell me what’s getting you through the week!
On this day in 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom first spilled its guts to the world. I was ten years old, and the movie stole my heart, as it were — and I can’t decide, to this day, if that’s a good thing or not.
It’s a tremendously ugly movie, and I say this as a more-or-less fan. The first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was of course fraught with peril and casual cruelty, and it had its gross-out moments. But it’s relevant to the spirit of Raiders that, as the avenging spirits stream out of the ark and melt the bad guys’ faces off, Indy shouts, “Marion, don’t look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens!”
There’s no such warning in Temple of Doom. The audience is caged face-down and lowered with fiendish leisure into a pit of grossness and visual torment, from bugs galore, to chilled monkey brains, eyeball soup, and snake surprise:
to the turbaned thug getting bloodily squashed between the belt and the crushing wheel, to, of course, the terrified victim screaming as his heart is torn from his chest before he’s slowly lowered, alive, spreadeagled, and face down in a cage to meet his death by lava.
Good grief, really dark stuff. The central plot revolves around child slavery (because that’s entertaining) and dwells extensively in a truly hellish underground nightmare world, where children toil and scream under the whips of the brutal guards in an endless midnight of sweat, fumes, and torchlight.
In retrospect, [Lucas] and Spielberg attributed the extremely dark themes in Temple of Doom to their respective marriages that had broken up . . .
What they had in mind was so dark, in fact, that Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan turned down their offer to pen the second film. “I just thought it was horrible. It’s so mean,” Kasdan said later. “There’s nothing pleasant about it. I think Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their lives, and the movie is very ugly and mean-spirited.”
The movie is all the more painful because it offers no likeable characters — no breezy Marion, no heartily faithful Sallah, no endearing Dr. Jones Sr., and only the cringeworthy Short Round as a foil, giving Indy no supporting friendships to highlight his more human side. The minimally talented Kate Capshaw as Willie is the squeamish, sequined, shrieking heroine you love to hate, except they forgot to put in the part where you love her.
Which makes the movie all the more more painful when, as a kid, I pondered over and over what I would do if I were in Willie’s pointy-toed shoes. She’s so spectacularly unsympathetic; and yet, good grief, it would be hard to stick your hand into that crevice crawling with oversized, squirming bugs. That scene became a kind of touchstone for my developing conscience, and I constantly interrogated myself, “Could I do the right thing if I had to? Even if it was covered with bugs???”
Not gonna lie: When she picks her way through the nameless slime and cobwebs of the tunnel and groans to herself, “Ooooooh, gawd, what is thissss?” — Willie c’est moi, even unto this day, like when I’m trying to figure out what is clogging up the car seat so the buckle won’t buckle. I also feel sorry for her, against my will, when Indy and Short Round are heartlessly playing cards and assume she’s just being hysterical, when she’s actually being haunted and tormented by all the terrors of the jungle. Running back and forth and shrieking like an idiot, and nobody will even turn around? I’ve been there. Boy, do I resent being made to sympathize with this flossy-haired nothing doll.
It was Spielberg who suggested the creation of the PG-13 rating specifically for this movie, because it was too rough and gross for kids, but it’s no adult film, either. It set the standard for a certain type of film which has threatened to overwhelm the movie industry ever since: Appealing to the vanity of young teenagers (I’m old enough to watch some really grown-up stuff! Like evisceration, and boobies!) while satisfying the basest instincts of that same crowd, larding the story with scenes that genuinely adult audiences have no use for.
Nevertheless. This supremely exploitative film that continually punishes its audience and which positively glitters with insults against Indians, the Chinese, women, and even elephants is entirely bought and paid for by one of the most glorious scenes of homecoming ever put to film. Feast your eyes as every last child comes home and is folded in his parents’ loving arms:
It’s not that, as a viewer, I really want to be reeled in with a whip like that. I’d rather be treated with a little more respect throughout, thanks, instead of being jerked around for an hour and half and then getting a giant smooch at the end.
Oh, well. I guess I sympathize with Willie after all. Dammit. I don’t know if Indy redeems himself, but the movie sure does; and at this point, I stop complaining.
Here’s my review of Attack the Block, a sci-fi thriller from 2011, from the producers of Shaun of the Dead. The review is from 2013. I apologize for re-running two posts in a row. It’s been a difficult couple of days, and I would appreciate prayers if you’ve got ’em! Thanks.
Here’s the set-up: a gang of no-good inner city kids terrorizes the neighborhood, mugging a young woman at knifepoint. But before they’re through with her, something streaks down from space and crashes into a car. They don’t quite know what it is, but it’s aggressive, and they kill it. Full of swagger and machismo, they drag the corpse of whatever-it-is to the most secure place they know: the apartment of a local drug dealer. They think all they need to do is figure out the best way to cash in on their luck and success. But things are about to get more complicated.
Here’s the trailer:
As British filmmakers seem more free to do, they cast actors who look like real people. If this had been an American film, the teenage girls lounging in their bedroom would have all been professionally made up and dressed like models. But in this movie, some of the girls knew what to do with their hair, and some of them didn’t — just like real girls. Ditto for the apartment interiors: none of them looked like stage sets with a few messy areas thrown in stimulate gritty realism. They just looked like actual crummy apartments.
And ditto for the characters themselves. There was a refreshing lack of stock characters. In an American movie, you could have pegged, within five minutes, which characters were going to live and which would die. You would be able to tell that the privileged, white, pothead poseur with the fabulous head of hair was going to get it, because he deserves it, because he’s driving his daddy’s fancy car and so on. But — spoiler — all that happens in this movie is he gets hit in the nose with a baseball bat because he’s not paying attention, and it’s kind of funny.
In the course of the film, the ringleader, Moses, undergoes a small but pivotal transformation: he discovers how to channel his natural toughness and charisma from something desperate into something valuable. He begins with a stunted moral code — that we’re responsible for ourselves and for the people on our block, and that’s it — and emerges as a true hero . . . or at least as a young man who has the makings of a real man.
Moses and his followers aren’t presented as rough diamonds or noble savages whose morals poignantly and ironically transcend that of the bourgeois upright citizen (although I was afraid that that’s where the movie was headed). They really are bad kids doing bad things — some of them with no parents to guide them, but some of them just looking for a thrill. At the same time, their little gang (with its armory of fireworks and cavalry of mopeds) really does have a moral code. For comparison, we see what true evil does look like, when the drug dealer, High Hat, commands his second to head unarmed into peril. Moses’ friends, on the other hand, are constantly on the phone with each other (with the pathetic detail that they’re constantly fretting about how many minutes or texts they have left), and they never doubt for a minute that they will come to each others’ rescue.
At one point, when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, Moses admits of the dark suspicion that the aliens invading the block are just another plague inflicted on them by the authorities to keep the black man down — just like drug addiction and AIDS. Everyone stews with this for a moment. And then they all laugh, just because it just sounds kind of stupid. And yet later, when the true heroes of the day are being carted off to jail, someone remarks something like, “Aw, you guys are always arresting the wrong people!” And yup, it’s true. There’s no grand, cohesive injustice against the poor and downtrodden; but they do get downtrodden — just like life. The film deftly avoids Being About Something, which makes it all the more compelling when it is true to life.
Is Attack the Block free from formula? Not at all. It’s a pretty standard issue sci-fi action thriller flick. And yet it does something brilliant: all of the characters have clearly been raised on standard issue sci fi action thriller flicks and video games. That is part of the subtext, such as it is, of this movie: these are kids who have been raised by TV, and don’t even realize that there’s more to life than the thrills and platitudes they’ve seen. They are clearly imitating what they’ve seen a thousand times on screen. And yet their behavior completely appropriate, because they really are being chased by horrible, ravenous aliens down dark streets and smoky hallways! This layer of removal, as the kids imitate fiction, makes it possible for the filmmakers to deliver thrills and chills, without sacrificing any of the realism that makes you care about the characters.
All around, Attack the Block is an entertaining, solid, nicely crafted little movie that gave me something to think about, without getting all thinky about it.
This movie is not meant for kids. It uses profanity freely (although that becomes something of an inside joke later in the script), it’s intense and scary, it has a few quick scenes of gross-out gore, and it shows lots of people doing drugs. But if you are an older teen or an adult who can tell the difference between a movie that shows certain behaviors and a movie that condones and promotes certain behaviors, then you might really enjoy Attack the Block. (There is no sexual content to this film, unless it slipped by me somewhere in the heavy accents. They do take some getting used to!)
About ten minutes into Jeff Nichols’ 2007 movie Shotgun Stories, I asked my husband, “Am I crazy, or is this, like, Shakespeare?”
Check it out: In rural Arkansas in the heat of summer, a woman knocks on the door of a shabby house. Her son opens, and she announces, “Your father’s dead.” The three brothers inside take this news in various ways, according to their natures. They next turn up at the funeral held by the dead man’s newer wife and his four newer sons, who enjoyed comfort and security after their father gave up alcohol, took up religion, turned his life around — and abandoned his first family entirely. The oldest son interrupts the eulogy to tell the world “You think he was a good man. But he wasn’t,” and he spits on the coffin. The upgraded family doesn’t take kindly to affront, and they take their revenge — and the bitter feud inevitably unfolds from there.
“He made like we were never born,” says the oldest son; and then he spends the rest of the film showing the world that, now that the father is dead, the first son is here, and he will not retreat. It is as if he cannot. Later, when his estranged wife finds out that there was a fight at the funeral, she asks him, “You think that was wise?” and he answers, “Doesn’t matter.” All the men in the movie are caught up in a violent drama that rolls out inexorably, as if it’s beyond anyone’s control. It is very hard to fault them for any of the choices they make, even when they will clearly lead to suffering, because they are behaving as one must in their world. It is as if the death of their father abruptly demands a higher, more elemental way of responding to the world — acting, rather than just enduring. (At the same time, at least some of the sons want the next generation to have something different.)
The three sinned-against sons are drawn in a few deft strokes that make fully-realized characters: One ambitious but prideful, one passive but single-minded, and one meek but intensely loyal. They are, you gradually realize, named “Son,” “Boy,” and “Kid,” (even the family dog has a more human name), while the upgraded family of sons are named after the father and after apostles. There is even a “fool,” a meth cooker named “Shampoo,” who cruises in and out of scenes delivering news, badgering, and instigating more drama. We never even see the father, dead or alive, but we know him well, through the memories of the seven sons he left behind.
There may possibly be an Old Testament/New Testament story being played out between the two families, working through themes of fathers who abandon us and yet somehow ordain our every move. I need to watch it again, because I know I missed a lot the first time around. Here’s a trailer that gives a pretty fair overview, although it doesn’t include the other two brothers, which is a shame:
What’s extraordinary about Shotgun Stories, and what also blew me away in Mud, the other Jeff Nichols movie I’ve seen, is the sense of place. Rarely, rarely have I seen such a true and real and immediate world through the lens of a movie camera. When the three brothers slump dejectedly in the street of their cracked, tired old town, I feel like I’ve lived there all my life and I’m sick to death of it. When Son reaches down to clear out the drainage pipe in the fish farm where he works, I feel the mindless weariness of it my sore elbow and my damp shirt cuff. I see exactly which parts of the tract home were fixed up by Son’s fed-up but not heartless wife, and which parts have fallen under the fate-haunted influence of the three brothers. The movie is clearly filmed on a shoestring, but it doesn’t look cheap, just true. Remarkable.
What I haven’t mentioned is how funny the movie is, in unexpected spurts. The third son, Boy (Douglas Ligon), a gentle, pudgy, part-time basketball coach who lives in a van down by the river, tries at one point to hook up a full size air conditioner to his van; and ever since his attempt, his radio will occasionally start blaring cheesy power ballads, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He endures this several times, at the worst possible moments, and it is only after the fourth time that he thinks to turn the volume down. But it is Boy who eventually becomes the center of the action after Son can’t protect his brothers anymore.
The casting is, as in Mud, impeccable, and the acting is flawless. Michael Shannon as Son is tremendous, infuriating and heartbreaking at once, his face conveying three layers of emotion for every word he tightly utters. Like the dead father, the shotgun of the title barely makes it on screen. Instead, you see scars of the past, and are waiting throughout the entire movie to see whether or not it will go off again, and what will come of it all. You will not be able to take your eyes away.
We saw this movie on Netflix streaming. Rated PG 13. Some violence and fleeting foul language; very intense in mood; suitable for teenagers. Highly recommended!
The great part of this deft, brisk movie is that you can totally ignore these existential themes of being lost and being found, having direction and having a reason to live, and just watch it because it’s tense and exciting and has a really scary bear in it.
My kids’ experience with opera comes entirely from Bugs Bunny, and we really wanted them to branch out. So, with great trepidation, we showed them Don Giovanni last weekend … and they loved it. More or less.
We did it in two nights. The first night, I set out some trays heaped with treats in the living room. We had brie, havarti, and honey goat cheese and three kinds of crackers, red and green grapes, mini chocolate eclairs, and sparkling cider. So the kids were all excited and cheerful, and ready to have a fancy good time. For my kids, this step is essential. If they get any whiff of high art or culture, they turn into jerks and refuse to enjoy themselves, so they need to be softened up. This is okay with me, because I, too, enjoy cheese.
We went with the Metropolitan Opera’s 2000 production with set design by Franco Zeffirelli. This production has large, clear subtitles, and all the literate kids followed the action just fine. (And the story doesn’t waste any time, but leaps right in, which is one of the reasons I chose this opera.)
The amazing thing was that Benny (age 3) picked up an awful lot, too, and was engaged throughout. She could tell that DonjiManji was one bad dude. She called all the women “princesses” (score one for the wonderful costumes, which were everything opera costumes should be) and said that Donna Elivra was “sad, and mad.” When Don Ottavio was pestering Donna Anna for the umpteenth time, she remarked, “The princess wants him to shut up.”
They laughed at the funny parts (Ferruccio Furlanetto as Leperello did a great job of making all the subtler jokes obvious with gestures and smirks) and were aghast at Don Giovanni’s wickedness.
The NYT review said that Bryn Terfel
comes to the Don with his own powerful if somewhat repugnant point of view. If the production is about period elegance, the character itself achieves a modern mean-spiritedness. Endearing naughtiness is replaced with outright sadism. This is a coldly obsessive figure for whom rape and murder is not offhand but committed with pleasure.
Well, that is the role. I don’t see how the rest of the opera makes any sense if the Don is just endearingly naughty; and his sneering callousness helped the kids to see why (spoiler) Don Giovanni goes to Hell but Leperello gets off the hook. Terfel’s power and command were sufficient to explain why the women found him hard to resist, and, as the NYT says,
this not very nice man sings like an angel. The articulation was wonderful, and Mr. Terfel commands such a depth of color that his ”La ci darem la mano” could soar out into the hall even at half voice. Volume does not necessarily conquer the Met’s bigness. Quality and focus have a better chance.
The entire cast had that focus, and no one seemed dwarfed. Here’s the rest of the cast:
Bryn Terfel (Don Giovanni), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Leporello), Renee Fleming (Donna Anna), Solveig Kringelborn (Donna Elvira), Hei-Kyung Hong (Zerlina), Paul Groves (Don Ottavio), Sergei Koptchak (Commendatore) and John Relyea (Masetto). James Levine was conductor.
Renee Fleming was tremendous. I think a few of the kids were crying when she wept, “O padre mio!” The NYT:
Fleming’s Donna Anna had unusual breadth. ”Non mi dir” luxuriated in the softness of her timbre, yet the early scenes abandoned beauty for its own sake and took on a wonderful fierceness. She is in both moods a splendid musician; the attention to rhythm, phrase length and pitch legitimized the emotion.
Quite right about the two moods. She showed real depth. Her character is naturally more interesting than Don Ottavio’s anyway, but I was really struck, in this production, by how unworthy he is of her! And what a pest, good heavens. I think if she broke a toe or won the Nobel prize for phsyics, he’d scoot over and explain that this was the perfect time for her to get over her grief and marry him. Anyway, she was immensely present in the role, and plus, she is just so beautiful.
Solveig Kringelborn as Donna Elivira was a revelation to me. I’ve heard this role mainly played as straight up crazy bitch; but Kringelborn brought out some real pathos and humor, and avoided sounding screamy in a role that has a lot of high notes. I enjoyed every minute of her performance, and the kids loved her.
Zerlina, I was not so crazy about, and the kids had a hard time with her character. I’ve seen her played more winningly. Her voice was crystalline and her diction was perfect, but there was no appeal in her stage presence, that I could see. It would have been fine as an audio performance, but I wouldn’t seek out Hei-Kyung Hong out for this stage role again.
Masetto did fine. Paul Groves as Don Ottavio was nicely stolid and useless, and his voice was as lovely as you could wish for his lovely arias. Don Ottavio is not actually allowed to breathe at any point, and Groves did not. The Commendatore was nice and creepy. I totally would have repented if it had been me holding that cold hand!
Very sensitive audiences will be upset with the scariness of the final scene, and with Don Giovanni’s handsiness, but it is an opera about rape and damnation, so. There was nothing so explicit that we found it off-bounds for the kids.
Next up: not sure! I think Mozart is great for kids: the emotion is so evident, and he doesn’t waste any time. Maybe The Barber of Seville.I’m sadly ignorant about Italian opera, and I’d like to remedy that. What would you suggest?