The Godfather (1972)
Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
I would argue that Francis Ford Coppola is the most influential director of the last 20th century, not a giant leap to make, really. He pre-dated the breakout debuts of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, De Palma, and more. Coppola also created a type of movie that had been endlessly mimicked and rarely matched. It’s an epic drama focused on characters and their relationships over long periods. Hollywood had been making epics for decades but not like what Coppola brought to the screen in The Godfather. This was also many people’s introduction to the specifics of the mafia. Like epics, Hollywood gave audiences gangster pictures for years but nothing that showcased the family dynamics and the importance of cultural heritage to these criminal organizations. The Godfather really does live up to its hype, unlike anything before.
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Petite Maman (2021)
Written & Directed by Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma truly wowed me and many others with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was a complex romantic film about two women unable to have the sort of love they wanted under the social constraints of their time. The premise could have been played so bland, but Sciamma injected it with life and energy few films have. That led to a heart-breaking finale that lingers with the viewer long after. I was excited when I learned of her newest film, Petite Maman. She had been such a fantastic filmmaker I was curious to see what she did next. When I discovered the movie was about the rocky relationship between mother and daughter, something ripe to be explored with a lot of emotional depth, I needed to see it. Sadly, what we got was a complete waste of time.
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The Witches (2020)
Written by Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis, like I said about John Landis while reviewing An American Werewolf in London, is a director that gave us some fantastic movies in the 1980s and then seemed to fade in subsequent decades. In Zemeckis’s instance, he seemed to keep putting out quality work in the 1990s, but it was the new millennium and deluge of motion capture technologies that took him into a new realm of filmmaking that often hasn’t paid off. These instances always cause me to wonder if all that success ultimately had a negative consequence, removing the things that made Zemeckis’s movies fun because he simply wanted to play with some complicated new toys.
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A Little Princess (1995)
Written by Richard LaGravenese & Elizabeth Chandler
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
When I watch films intended for families or children, I always focus on the theme or lesson being communicated. I think, as an elementary teacher, I want to know what this picture is telling kids about the world and humanity. I’d heard very positive things about A Little Princess, mainly from the perspective that Alfonso Cuaron did a great job directing. From that technical perspective, the film is well done, save for some poorly aged computer special effects. But I actually found the lesson of the picture to be deeply troubling yet very much in line with many of the films that come out of Hollywood for kids.
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The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
Written by Melissa Mathison
Directed by Frank Oz
Frank Oz is one of my favorite comedy directors of the 1980s and 90s. I consider Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and What About Bob? among my favorite movies from that period. He was also no stranger to making family-friendly fare with The Muppets Take Manhattan directorial credit as well as being one of the top performers among Jim Henson’s Muppet troupe. That’s what makes The Indian in the Cupboard feel so strangely disappointing and lifeless. The movie isn’t horrible, but it feels like it’s missing a critical emotional component that ends up leaving the picture ultimately forgettable.
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Written by George Miller & Chris Noonan
Directed by Chris Noonan
I recall this movie being huge when it came out, and when looking at the box office returns and critical reviews, it truly was. Babe was a phenomenally popular film, one of those rare family films that didn’t pander to its audience and told a layered, thoughtful story. Most people probably just remember the cute little pig and his sweet voice, but there is a lot of heavy, dark material. The film doesn’t shy away from touching on the cruelty of factory farming and the eating of meat. With the talented work of filmmakers George Miller & Chris Noonan on the script, they never become didactic, though, making sure the story is always entertaining.
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Follow That Bird (1985)
Written by Judy Freudberg & Tony Geiss
Directed by Ken Kwapis
The late 1970s/early-mid 1980s was the era of the Muppets and Jim Henson. The world-famous puppeteer worked to show the audience what his creations could do and expand the public consciousness about puppetry. He showed us a comedic variety program with The Muppet Show, a road trip picture with The Muppet Movie, action & adventure in The Great Muppet Caper, and a Broadway-style musical with the Muppets Take Manhattan. Henson created work aimed at older audiences with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. In the middle of all of this, Henson’s company decided to bring their phenomenally successful public television series Sesame Street to the big screen with Follow That Bird.
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Written by Nicholas Kazan & Robin Swicord
Directed by Danny DeVito
Roald Dahl has always been one of my most favorite children’s authors ever since I had first Charlie and the Chocolate Factory read to me. Dahl has an incredible nastiness in his writing that appeals to kids, he reveals the truth of the world, mainly that adults are often gluttonous buffoons. There are also monstrous children, usually offshoots of their rotten parents. The child protagonists on Dahl’s work are overwhelmed by these abrasive forces but typically find a source of internal strength to overcome them and triumph. Matilda is one of the most archetypal Dahl heroes, and her story is very much centered in a nuanced examination of the education system.
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The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018)
Written by Eric Kripke
Directed by Eli Roth
The name Eli Roth is typically associated with, what I consider, mediocre horror films. He made Cabin Fever, the first two Hostel movies, among others. I’ve never clicked with the style and tone Roth goes for in his films, they feel like horror movies intent on undercutting any potential fear or creepiness, almost parodies of horror movies. I was a bit surprised when this was announced, an adaptation of a children’s fantasy novel written by John Bellairs in the 1970s. I feel like Roth hasn’t found his niche in the type of films he makes typically so I thought this could be a chance for him to make something I’d enjoy.
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Toni Erdmann (2016, dir. Maren Ade)
German music teacher Winfried Conradi is happy in his simple life, playing oddball pranks that no one actually falls for and just create awkward moments. His favorite prop is a pair of novelty teeth he wears and fails to get a laugh out of anyone. His daughter, Ines, is a business consultant working out of Bucharest, Romania currently trying to outsource labor for the oil industry. Winfried decides to surprise her with a visit and discover she not the sort of person he hoped she’d become. Ines has been consumed by her work and adopted a very corporate philosophy through every aspect of her life. The trip goes south when Ines sleeps through a meeting with a client because he father wanted her to get her rest. He retreats back to Germany and Ines goes about trying to salvage things on her end. But then man in a tangled messy wig and novelty teeth pops up calling himself Toni Erdmann. He claims to be a life coach and looks a hell of a lot like Ines’ father.
Toni Erdmann is being referred to as a comedy, but it does everything it can to defy many audiences’ expectations of what makes a film comedy. The traditionally set up and pay off formula for gags is not present. Scenes open without any clear sense of where we are going, and sometimes we get a pin on some moment. Other times the scene just ends, and we move onto the next one. This is all very intentional and not the sign of poor writing. Rather this is a deliberate subversion and makes the film a representation of everything Winfried is trying to do to his daughter. There are some scenes where he pulls the omnipresent novelty teeth from his pocket, pops them in his mouth, begins to play out a bit, and just as quickly slumps his shoulders, and the teeth go back in the pocket. He perpetually seems to be met with incredulity by Ines and her associates. An incidental laugh will occasionally occur but never for the reasons Winfried intends.
Ines is forever frustrated by her father and focuses on gaining the respect she believes she deserves in her very male dominated profession. Her adherence to stepping in line with Western capitalism elicits a quandary from her father about her humanity. That comes at a very tense moment and acts as the crux on which the film flips. She has tolerated him to this point but after this she tells him he must leave. Later, her boss labels her a feminist as he goes on about the direction he believes their business proposal should take. Ines replies “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.” This is less a commentary on a feminism than it is the way in which the world she finds herself is systematically erasing a sense of self. Every decision she makes is calculated based on the effect it will have on her career interests. Winfried seems to believe he can save her through his shtick and that eventually her shell will crack.
Toni Erdmann is a long film, just short of three hours. This is also a part of the subversion. Jokes are meant to be punchy and quick. The film, like Winfried, lingers longer than we expect it to. The awkwardness increases and we wonder when this nuisance will just move along. We also see Ines as the pestered working parent and Winfried as the obnoxious child fawning for attention. Through all of this subversion and intentional annoyance, there is a genuinely real story about parent and child trying and failing to reconnect. It’s a situation many of us have faced as we get older and find ourselves distanced physically, emotionally, and ideologically. Even the way the film brings about it’s “happy ending” doesn’t follow the conceits you would expect to see. Toni Erdmann is a truly bizarre but fantastic film that earns the “it’s not for everyone” motto.