Wonder


Julia Roberts with her new leading man.

(2017) Dramedy (Lionsgate) Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Ty Consiglio, Kyle Breitkopf, James Hughes, J. Douglas Stewart, Millie Davis, Ali Liebert, Joseph Gordon, Cameron Roberts, Nadji Jeter, Danielle Rose Russell, Erika McKitrick, Sonia Braga, Nicole Oliver. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

 

Going to a new school can be traumatic even in the best of circumstances. Throw in that you know – without any doubt whatsoever – that you are for certain going to be bullied. How much more traumatic does that make things?

Auggie (Tremblay) is in that exact situation. He’s not being bullied because of sexual preference, religion or race; Auggie has a disfiguring disease known as Treacher Collins syndrome. The effects of 27 surgeries besides making it necessary for Auggie to be homeschooled have allowed him to breathe and essentially survive but nothing really can change the deformities of his face. They are so pronounced that he’d rather wear an astronaut’s helmet to school which would merely mark him as weird than go barefaced which marks him as a freak.

His loving parents – Nate (Wilson), the cool dad we all wanted and Isabel (Roberts), the über-protective Mama Bear – are worried for him. His big sister, teenaged Via (Vidovic) is protective of him but has troubles of her own; her best friend Miranda (Russell) has suddenly shut her out and is off with a much different clique of friends. Forlorn, she signs up for drama class and meets a cute guy Justin (Jeter) who she crushes on and eventually the two begin dating.

Auggie, with his upbeat attitude and intelligence begins to make friends despite the hardships. Jack Will (Jupe) becomes his best friend although Julian (Gheisar) continues to torment him. Still all the people in Auggie’s orbit are trying to make it the best they can but it isn’t easy.

This is based on a bestselling children’s book by RJ Palacio who was inspired to write it when her son whom she had taken out for ice cream was brought to tears by the sight of a kid with Treacher Collins syndrome. The book is very heartwarming and teaches the value of accepting people as they are and the movie follows it pretty closely from a stylistic perspective.

The acting is solid – one might say wonderful – with Tremblay getting particular kudos. Child actors tend to be stiff and hammy but Tremblay plays it with a degree of naturalism that is refreshing. Yeah from time to time he says and does thing that come from the perfect kid school of filmmaking but that’s not on Tremblay, the actor. Considering he has to emote under layers of make-up, something some adults have trouble with, one has to really give the kid kudos. Most of the other performances are strong as well, although I would have wished for more Roberts. It seems a shame to hire her on for a role like this one and not have her in the picture more.

My issue is that a lot of the book – and the movie – is a bit too nice, suffering from too-good-to-be-truism. They all have their weak moments but it’s like the entire movie is populated from characters in a children’s show and it doesn’t feel real or authentic. I needed a little more of both to make this work for me.

Movies that are this emotionally manipulative tend to irritate critics but for some reason critics embraced this one. It got strong scores on Rotten Tomatoes (see below) and while it’s pretty much out of the awards consideration picture, it nonetheless got favorable reviews from both critics and consumers alike. I wish I could join them but this felt a little bit too bland and predictable for me to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Tremblay gives a nice, nuanced performance.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too vanilla and predictable for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of bullying and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The medical name for Auggie’s affliction is mandibulofacial dystosis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mask
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Strawberry Flavored Plastic

The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick

Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story


John Paul DeJoria did well so he could do good.

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) John Paul DeJoria, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Trejo, Arianna Huffington, Cheech Marin, Robert Kennedy, Ron White, John Capra, Michelle Phillips, Pierce Brosnan, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Lou Jacobellis, Michaeline DeJoria, Goose, Pam Peplow, Angus Mitchell, Paul Watson, Alexis DeJoria, Julia Povost, Joyce Campbell, Mara Goudrine, Ilana Edelstein. Directed by Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell

 

“Success that is not shared is failure” according to billionaire John Paul DeJoria. It’s an attitude that is refreshing in an era where the top 1% of our wealthiest citizens are viewed with distrust if not outright hostility and for good reason. Our wealthy have acted in a manner befitting the “Let them eat cake” crowd in an orgy of conspicuous consumption and overall lack of care for the planet and the people on it. The arrogance and utter blind disregard that they have shown to everyone and everything else that doesn’t immediately affect their bank accounts positively is absolutely deplorable.

DeJoria is different. He came from a background that these days isn’t uncommon, but back in the 40s and 50s was certainly not the norm. His father left when John Paul, or JP as most of his friends call him, was two years old. Raised by a single mom – an immigrant from Greece – in East Los Angeles, he and his brother were poor but never really knew that they were. His mother instilled in them a respect for others and a desire to help those who were worse off than themselves, making JP and his brother put a dime in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas even though they were living hand to mouth but even then she felt the urge to do good. DeJoria justifiably has been close to his mom ever since.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy where he learned the value of hard work and teamwork, he set out to make something of himself. He discovered an affinity for sales and was successful selling encyclopedias door to door as well as a short but successful career selling life insurance. After being introduced to the hair care industry working for Redken (a company my own father worked for decades earlier) he met hairstylist Paul Mitchell in 1971 and together they formed John Paul Mitchell Systems, a hair care line sold exclusively through salons. After a rocky and precarious start, the partners were rewarded when the 80s, perhaps the most hair-conscious era in history, helped their sales explode..

After Mitchell’s death in 1986 from pancreatic cancer, DeJoria became the sole owner of the company and continued to run it in the manner he always had; with an eye towards the environment and with respect and care for the people who worked for him. He had come a long way from living out of his car on two separate occasions (including once while he was getting John Paul Mitchell Systems up and running), from being in a biker gang (after graduating high school) and from two failed marriages.

He would use his millions to start several ventures, including the House of Blues and Absolut Vodka (not touched upon in the film) and more importantly, Patron Tequila which is covered extensively in the movie. He married a third time and found love; he has been a doting father to his blended family with children from both his previous marriages and from his new one, as well as her children from before her marriage to John Paul. One of his children is Alexis DeJoria, a funny car driver who owns the world record.

Ever since the Salvation Army incident in his youth, JP has had almost an obsession with giving back. He supports something like 250 different charities not only with financial contributions but also with his rather precious time. He is shown here spending time with Chrysalis, a Los Angeles-based charity that gets homeless people aid in getting back into the workforce, and Sea Shepard, dedicated to stopping illegal poaching of marine life (such as blue whales and bluefin tuna, both nearly extinct). Not shown in the film is his devotion to Food4Africa which has provided something like 400,000 meals to starving children in Africa since their inception. Not touched upon in the film was his contribution to Ted Cruz’ campaign which seems at odds with his world view of protecting the planet. I’d love to know why he would donate to someone who has voted consistently against climate change and environmental protection but that’s just me.

The husband/wife team of Joshua and Rebecca Tickell has some pretty serious films to their credit and to their credit they do portray their subject as distinctly non-saintly although there is a steady stream of praise coming from such celebrities as Cheech Marin, Ariana Huffington, Pierce Brosnan, Ron White, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Danny Trejo and Michelle Phillips – the latter two friends since childhood.

I get the sense that DeJoria is much too humble to want to be the subject of a fawn-a-thon. What my guess is that he did this picture for was to inspire those who are down and out to go out and chase their dream anyway. He certainly did and through hard work and determination became wealthy beyond his wildest imagining. Not everyone is going to achieve that kind of success but certainly people willing to do their best are likely to at least improve their situation in life.

DeJoria is an inspiring person whose commitment to the environment, to the betterment of humanity and to the inspiration of others is worthy of emulation. I wish that more of the 1% would adopt his attitude and some have to be fair – I see you, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – although not enough to rehabilitate the reputation of the rich and shameless.

DeJoria is also an engaging, charismatic individual and that makes the film a lot easier to enjoy. Not only are you rooting for him throughout the film but you want to hang out with him – and one gets the sense that he would love for you to hang out with him, too. People like DeJoria are rare commodities these days and if anyone deserves a documentary of their own, it’s them. I’m glad that DeJoria got his.

REASONS TO GO: The subject is quite inspiring. DeJoria himself is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The film occasionally is too fawning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of DeJoria’s children work for him at Paul Mitchell Systems.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Becoming Warren Buffett
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown

Dolphin Tale


Dolphin Tale

"Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up"

(2011) Family (Warner Brothers) Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Austin Stowell, Frances Sternhagen, Austin Highsmith, Michael Roark, Richard Libertini, Tom Nowicki. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

“Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken” says one wise character in this movie and that has a real ring of truth to it. There was a time when having a disability meant you were limited, but in this day and age of technological marvels that’s no longer the case. As a disabled person myself, I can tell you first hand that you’re only as broken as you allow yourself to be.

Sawyer (Gamble) is a kid from a broken home; his dad left ages ago and has disappeared off the face of the Earth as far as Sawyer and his plucky single mom (Judd) is concerned. Sawyer is socially awkward and a bit of a loner and things are going from bad to worse; his cousin Kyle (Stowell), a swimming champion at Clearwater High, is joining the Army and going off to the Middle East. Sawyer is bummed; he idolized his cousin and had expected he would try out for the Olympic Team but Kyle knows he needs money to train for that and a stint in the Army would give him that.

On his way to summer school (Sawyer, in addition to not fitting in with his peers is failing at school) Sawyer is flagged down by a surf fisherman (Libertini)  who has found a dolphin washed to shore. The dolphin is tangled up in the lines of a crab trap. Sawyer calls 911 on his cell phone and races down to the surf to cut the animal free from its bonds.

Concerned vets from the local Clearwater Marine Hospital led by dashing Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick) and his plucky daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff – there is no shortage of plucky in family films) come and rescue the dolphin. Sawyer becomes intrigued by the dolphin and goes to the Marine Hospital where he meets Hazel again and the plucky pelican Roofus (because he lives on the roof). Dr. Haskett is about to shoo Sawyer away but he notices that the gravely injured Winter responds to the boy’s presence and allows him to stay as kind of a junior volunteer.

This serves to energize Sawyer and give him a purpose he’s never had before. However, Winter’s injuries are too severe and her tail has to be amputated. Winter learns how to swim using an entirely different tail motion but this is creating extreme stress on her spinal column that might just kill her if something isn’t done.

On top of that cousin Kyle has returned from war badly injured and unable to walk properly, his dream of Olympic gold silenced forever. He has entered a deep depression and is staying at the local VA Hospital where a concerned prosthetist named Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Freeman) is fitting Kyle for a new leg. Sawyer realizes that a prosthesis might be the key to Winter’s survival and despite feeling sad at Kyle’s despondency  has the presence of mind to seek out Dr. McCarthy to help with his friend.

The initial attempts to get Winter to accept her new prosthetic tail are a disaster as Winter rejects each one. To top it all off, the Marine Hospital is in severe financial difficulties and a real estate mogul (Nowicki) has put in an offer the board (led by the redoubtable Sternhagen) of the Hospital can’t refuse, one which would involve tearing down the facility, moving the animals elsewhere and putting up a new hotel. Things are looking as ominous as the sky before a hurricane – which is about to strike.

Smith, best known as an actor in such classics as American Graffiti and Starman has directed such family fare as the forgettable Air Bud, hits a home run here. A lot of family films are a bit too sweet, like lemonade with too much sugar in it. You feel like gagging when you’re leaving the theater.

Not so here. Yes, there’s charm in a Free Willy kind of way but there are also some underlying messages about not giving up whatever the obstacle, and looking at those with disabilities in a different light.

This is based on a true story and it’s true in that there is a dolphin named Winter that was fitted for a prosthetic tail and acts as inspiration to the disabled everywhere. However, most of what you see here is fiction and Hollywoodized for family viewing. There are no kids in the real Winter’s story and teams of doctors instead of one prosthetist.

Gamble does a pretty good job as Sawyer but I’m still wrestling with whether his character was needed in the movie at all. From a marketing standpoint, very much so – the kids need someone to identify with if you’re going to get them to see the movie. However, from a story standpoint no. There is no way on Earth any sort of reputable marine vet would let a kid anywhere near a dolphin this badly injured.

Be that as it may, the movie is satisfying on several levels. The acting is pretty solid throughout, with Freeman as the idiosyncratic curmudgeon prosthetist and Kristofferson as Dr. Haskett’s salty dad. Judd is the lone exception; she seems a bit uncomfortable in her very brief role. Best of all is Winter, who plays herself. Watching her in action is astonishing, and the CGI versions of her are seamless.

The town of Clearwater is presented as an idyllic, all-American community (which is pretty much true) although it is in reality a little larger than it seems to be here. Having been to Clearwater and the Marine Aquarium (although this was pre-Winter), I can tell you that the filmmakers got that part of it right.

Good family movies have to appeal to the entire family, not just the ones who are wearing shoes that light up every time they step, or have little wheels so they can roller about. It’s helpful when they have some valuable life lessons for the kids and are at least reasonably palatable for their moms and dads (or grandmas and granddads) who are paying for their tickets. This one fits the bill. Yes, I find it disturbing that the story of Winter – which is truly amazing even without the enhancements – was fictionalized to the extent that it was but it still remains an inspiring and affecting family film that I think any parent should feel good about taking their kids to.

REASONS TO GO: Feel-good movie that is inspiring for the entire family. Some insightful subtexts as well as solid acting performances and of course Winter herself.

REASONS TO STAY: Was the inclusion of the kid as a lead character really necessary? There are a lot of family film clichés here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some kids will find the clinical treatment of Winter’s injuries a little rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the movie was filmed at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter’s real home. Producers built a new 80,000 gallon pool for filming.

HOME OR THEATER: There is nothing wrong with keeping the kids at home and seeing this on your own television.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Stone