Ready Player One

Posted on March 28, 2018 at 4:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language
Profanity: Brief strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, real and virtual weapons, chases, and explosions, arson, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 30, 2018

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
You know that one perfect high note in the A-Ha song, “Take on Me?” The goosebumpy bliss of it? “Ready Player One,” with endless callbacks to the era of A-Ha, is that note as a movie, set in the future, in love with the past, and uncannily right of this exact moment. There could be no better director than Steven Spielberg to take on this movie about a virtual game filled with the cultural touchstones of the 1980’s, a decade he helped define for the generation who will now be taking their children to this film and re-entering their own childhoods. We are all Marty McFly, now, going back to the future in a Delorean.

Spielberg is as good as anyone has ever been at the craft of cinematic storytelling, and there has never been a story more suited to that craft than this one, based on the book by first-time author Ernest Cline, who co-scripted and co-produced, and who admits that his world view was in large part formed by the Spielberg movies he watched as a kid in the 1980’s. There is a lot of nostalgia in the film, but also themes that could have come from today’s news: the role of technology as a distraction and as an invasion of privacy and underminer of democracy and the idea of teenagers saving the world.

It is Columbus, Ohio, 2045, when “people have stopped trying to fix problems and are just trying to outlive them.” The world is a bleak and broken place and most people spend most of their time escaping reality via a massive, enthralling online world called The Oasis, invented by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) a shy, obsessive genius who is a combination of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Walt Disney, and Willy Wonka. “They come for all the things they can do,” we hear, “but stay for all the things they can be.” Players can design their own avatar personas any way they want — with antlers or wings, beautiful or ugly, super-powerful, purple, any age, gender, or species.

Five years before this story begins, Halliday died, leaving his half-trillion dollar empire and sole control of The Oasis to whomever was the first to discover the “Easter egg”* hidden in the game, which required agility, puzzle-solving, and a comprehensive knowledge of Halliday’s life and the popular culture he immersed himself in as a child in the 1980’s.

In five years, no one has even found the first of the three keys that lead to the egg. Many people have given up. Those still seeking it are called “gunters” (egg hunters). Wade Watts (“Mud’s” Tye Sheridan) is a teenage orphan living with his aunt and her latest in a series of abusive boyfriends in what is essentially a vertical trailer park called The Stacks. The film’s opening scene is brilliantly designed, as the camera pans down a dingy, jerrybuilt column of shabby capsules, showing each occupant caught up in a different virtual reality scenario, from boxing to pole dancing, with just one woman growing real-life flowers, the only person who even notices that Wade is there.

Wade signs into The Oasis, using haptic** gloves and a virtual reality eyepiece, for yet another try at crossing a virtual version of a Manhattan bridge guarded by King Kong. His avatar is Parzival***, who drives a Delorean, and he has an online friend, an enormous, mechanically-gifted man named Aech (I won’t reveal the voice performer to avoid spoilers). And he is intrigued by a female avatar named Art3mis (again, no spoilers) who rides the red motorcycle from the Akira video game. While Parzival and Art3mis both insist they will not “clan up” (team up with other players, they end up forming an alliance that includes two other avatars, Sho and Daito.

The Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is head of the rival online company, Innovative Online Industries, and he wants to be the one to find the egg so he can make a lot of money selling ads (he has determined the exact number of ads that can bombard users “before inducing seizures,” he crisply informs his staff) and charging for access. IOI has hundreds of researchers and gamers trying to find the egg. And it operates “Loyalty Centers,” essentially debtors prisons, where those who owe the company money have to work it off under brutal and impossibly Sissiphusian conditions.

Wade has to locate three keys and solve clues involving not just logic and intense research but empathy, clues that turn out to be wisely selected by Halliday, Willie Wonka-style, to find the right person to take over the Oasis. Spielberg himself has to locate three keys as a filmmaker and does so with as much grace, heart, and integrity as Wade, his own avatar through the story. The copper key is the game level, the action scenes and the next-level special effects, including the chase across the Manhattan bridge and a stunning set piece inside the Stanley Kubrick movie, The Shining, repurposed here with bravura wit and skill. The jade key is the nostalgia, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of 80’s references, from the iconic and enduring to the obscure and forgotten. It is not, as is too often the case, shortcuts to play into the audience’s emotions, but deployed, again, with consummate wit and skill as commentary, as surprise, and as a reminder of our connections to the pop culture that first excited and engaged us. And the crystal key, well, it has been said often that the theme of all Spielberg movies is finding your way home. Wade is a 21st century Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland — or David in “WarGames,” exploring a land of infinite magic and wonder — and danger — but learning that there’s no place like home.

*The use of the term “Easter egg” to describe secret features originates from the 1979 video game Adventure for the Atari 2600 game console, programmed by employee Warren Robinett.

**They make it possible for the wearer to “feel” or “touch” virtual characters and objects.

***Named for one of King Arthur’s knights, who devoted his life to the search for the Holy Grail.

Parents should know that this film includes extended real world and virtual peril and violence including chases, explosions, weapons, murder, brief crude humor, some sexual references, brief strong language

Family discussion: What would your avatar be in the Oasis and why? Why would people stop trying to fix problems? What would Sorrento do with the Oasis and how would users respond?

If you like this, try: The book by Ernest Cline and movies that this one refers to, including “The Shining,” “The Iron Giant,” and “Back to the Future”

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Love, Simon

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family situations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
If you are scrolling through Netflix you may run across movies like 2000’s The Truth About Jane, where family or friends discover that someone is gay, get upset, try to deny it or force the gay person into therapy, and then learn in time for a big happy ending at a Pride parade that love is what matters, no matter who the person they love loves. A lot has happened in 18 years, and thankfully we are pretty much past the point where a story about a family freak-out over the discovery that someone is gay is worth making a movie about. Yet there are two elements that are notable about “Love, Simon.” It is the first major studio romantic comedy about a gay teenager. And, much more notable, the real issue is not about his being gay; it is just about his being a teenager.

“Love, Simon” is based on the award-winning book by psychologist Becky Albertalli. It is indeed a comedy. There are many very funny lines, and gems of comic performances by two of the adults in the film. The always-great Tony Hale (“Veep”) plays a high-spirited vice-principal who likes to confiscate cell phones and act like a princi-PAL, and Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”) is absolutely hilarious as a put-upon drama teacher forced to direct a production of “Cabaret” that is required to include every student who wants to be in the cast. Making the adults in the story the comic relief is a very nice touch.

And it is definitely a romance. I can’t remember when I’ve heard an audience respond with cheers and applause as joyous as they did when the big kiss moment finally arrived. But what makes this film really special is that is about feelings everyone has — the feeling of being alone, outside some sort of magic circle everyone else seems to know how to get inside, the worry about letting people down, the soul-shrinking experience of actually letting them down even more than you feared, the terror of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, the joy of being seen and understood.

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer”) plays Simon, a high school senior who has everything — loving, generous parents (who also happen to be gorgeous — Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), a cute kid sister, and great friends with whom he shares “way too many iced coffees, bad 90’s movies, and gorge on carbs at the Waffle House.” His life is just about perfect except that he has not been able to find a way to tell anyone that he is gay.

The school has a gossipy website where a student who calls himself Blue says that he is gay but cannot come out. So Simon writes him as “Jacques” and the two of them instantly fall into a close, supportive friendship with perhaps a little bit of flirting. What makes this really great in the film is that it allows/requires Simon (whose full name, as he points out, means “he who hears” and “he who sees”) to look at every male student in the school differently, as he wonders which one is Blue and even pictures different students in the situations Blue describes. That experience, as much as the correspondence itself, widens his world and makes him more empathetic, similar to the different perspectives in last year’s “Wonder.”

An obnoxious student discovers the correspondence and threatens to publish it unless Simon helps him get close to Abby, a transfer student who has become a part of Simon’s group of friends.

A brief fantasy sequence about what being gay might be like in college is a lot of fun, and a scene where Simon imagines that heterosexual teens should have to come out to their parents is sharply funny. But what makes this movie special is its tender heart. It is wise about friendships, about those first tentative steps toward intimacy, about being honest, not just about what you are but who you are, and about the unforgettable tenderness of that first kiss.

Parents should know that the theme of this film is a gay high schooler struggling to come out and it includes kisses, a brief crude sexual reference, teen drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why could Simon tell Blue and Abby before Leah and his family? Would you like to have a “Secrets” website for your school?

If you like this, try: “G.B.F.,” “Never Been Kissed,” and “Easy A”

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A Wrinkle in Time

Posted on March 8, 2018 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and some violence, some scary images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 9, 2018

Copyright Disney 2018
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is one of my all-time favorite books. I loved it when I was 11, read it aloud to our children, and went on to read all of the sequels and most of her other books as well. So it was with a lot of anticipation, excitement, and not a little trepidation that I looked forward to the film.

On the one had, the book had been dismissed over the decades as unfilmable due to its planet-hopping storyline, fantastical characters, and genre-straddling themes. On the other hand, I have the utmost respect for director Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “13th”) and co-screenwriter Jennifer Lee (“Frozen,” “Zootopia”) and the all-star cast looked promising. I held my breath, crossed my fingers, and leaned forward and caught my breath as the iconic Disneyland castle in the opening logo suddenly…wrinkled.

Most of what I love about the book was beautifully realized, and the movie is sure to be a middle school sleepover perennial and a family favorite for generations. It’s made straight from the heart of people who remember what it feels like to be 12 — and the way we all become 12 again in moments of uncertainty. If there’s a bit more Oprah-esque “you go girl” and “living your best life” than in the book, well, the movie features not just Oprah (who was also in “Selma”) but a house-sized Oprah with lips and eyebrows that look like someone went overboard on the Bedazzler.

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is the daughter of two scientists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine). She was once a gifted and attentive student, but since the disappearance of her father, four years before the movie begins, she has been sullen and uncooperative. Mean girls pick on her, and when she responds by throwing a ball at the ringleader, she gets in trouble. Nothing makes sense to her, and she wonders if her father left because she was not good enough.

Meg has an exceptionally precocious six-year-old brother named Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). In the book, he is her bio-brother and they have two older brothers as well but in the movie it is just the two of them and Charles Wallace was adopted just before their father disappeared. Charles Wallace is one of the major challenges of adapting the book, because on the page he is endearingly hyper-aware and ultra hyper-articulate, but on screen it is difficult to make him believable and keep him from being annoying. It is one of the film’s most salient weaknesses that this critical character does not work.

Meg gradually learns that Charles Wallace has been befriended by three extraordinary and very strange women known as Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey). (NOTE: L’Engle insisted that there be no period after “Mrs” in the British style.) As disturbing as it is reassuring, they seem to know what the Murrys were working on, a form of “wrinkling” time and space to permit instantaneous travel to other planets that they call a tesseract. (For some reason, the explanation appears in the trailer, but not the film.)

Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), is a well-liked, confident boy who seems to have nothing in common with the Murray children. But one day he impulsively visits them, and stays for dinner, appreciating the warmth and acceptance in their home. And then the three ladies explain why they are there. They have heard a call for help. It is the children’s father. And they are there to help Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace rescue him from “the darkness.”

And so, the rest of the film is candy-colored CGI, as the group visits first a paradisiacal planet for no particular reason other than a romp through a delightful garden of gossipy flying flowers who communicate via color and a soaring tour on a creature like a flying green manta ray with a rainbow Reese Witherspoon face. They visit a psychic called the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) for more information about where Dr. Murry has gone, and finally they get to the planet where he is being held captive by an all-controlling force. The film brings to life one of the book’s most vivid scenes, with a pristine suburban street where every house has a child standing in the driveway bouncing a ball in perfect rhythm and all of the Stepford-style moms come out at the same moment to call them in to dinner. The book was written a a time of post-WWII concerns about conformity and “houses made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same.” But the image is just as compelling today. The 1950’s may have led to an explosion of “do your own thing” individuality in the mid-to late 1960’s and self-actualization in the me-decade 70’s, but the importance of intellectual courage, thinking for yourself, and challenging assumptions is even more important in the era of fake news and “both sides.”

The book’s most memorable message comes when Meg is told that what will help her to rescue her father is her faults. Though how those faults help is not as explicitly explained in the film, that idea retains its power here. That makes up for some faltering in the climax, some under-imagined images, and some distractions that seem to stem from a lack of trust in the audience. We don’t really need that extra back story on the mean girl or Calvin (an odd change from his home life in the books, which will be a problem if they decide to film the sequels) to understand what their insecurities are or the time spent cheering Meg on (and apologizing to her and deferring to her) without making it clear what her strengths are and how they are connected to her faults. It would be better to focus on the book’s rare combination of both faith and science and how important both are. In the book, the children visit the planets to learn about the darkness and to see that it can be overcome (Mrs Whatsit is the result of one such triumph). The movie leans more toward an Oprah-eque message of empowerment, so the focus is more on individual self-realization (and being appreciated by others, including Calvin, which seems to be his primary purpose in the story).

The three Mrses are not quite as fun as the movie thinks, though Mrs Who’s Bumblebee-like “post-language” use of quotations (always noting the nationality of the author, from Rumi and Shakespeare to Lin-Manuel Miranda and OutKast) is charming. But Reid is a heroine to root for, and the Murry family is one we are, like Calvin, glad to have a chance to visit.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril with some violence and scary images, issues of an absent father, a school bully, and an abusive parent.

Family discussion: What are your most valuable faults? Why was Meg so important to IT?

If you like this, try: “The Neverending Story,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and the Narnia series

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Annihilation

Posted on February 22, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, many grisly and disturbing images, animal attacks, guns, explosives, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018
Copyright Paramount 2018

“Annihilation” is based on the Nebula Award-winning first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, adapted by director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and Army veteran, who joins a group of woman investigating an ominous anomaly the government is calling the shimmer. It looks like an rainbow prismed oil spill in the air. An area around a lighthouse is glowing and oscillating. Is it aliens? Is it God? Is it dangerous? Well, take a look at the title of the movie.

Whatever it is, it is expanding rapidly, posing a threat to pretty much everywhere. “The silence around it is louder than usual,” one observer notes. All missions, manned and unmanned, to investigate have produced no information and no human or drone sent inside has come back. Until one, an Army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband. A year after he left, he shows up at their home, dazed and critically ill.

And so Lena joins the next group going inside, along with Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist leading the team, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a shy physicist. The film is told in flashback, as Lena is being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, so we know that she will be the only one of the group to survive. We know what happened. We will see how.

The New Yorker calls VanderMeer “the King of Weird Fiction” and the Southern Reach trilogy “arresting, unsettling, and unforgettable” and “meditations on the theme of epistemic pessimism, in the tradition of Kafka.” I think what that means is that many science fiction and fantasy writers, even the most imaginative and compelling, base their stories on extrapolating what is already here, whether apocalyptic destruction of the planet due to environmental neglect or aliens who are a reflection of whatever geopolitical issues we are struggling with. Generally, though, the fundamental rules, the ones we take for granted so much we are not even aware we are taking them for granted, apply, including the rules of dramatic fiction that go back thousands of years. Hubris invites catastrophe. Bad guys want to control everything. Courage and honor triumph. VanderMeer, let’s just say, goes another way. Instead of taking what we have and know and projecting it in a more extreme form, he takes what we have and know and bends reality — and our minds — to make us think about how much we do not know. Inter-species mutations are occuring, suggesting that the shimmer somehow dissolves what we think of as immutable barriers, the ones that define our sense of the world and our sense of ourselves. “It’s literally not possible,” a team member says. “It’s literally what’s happening,” another responds.

One of the first questions we hear at the beginning of the film, as Lena is being something between interrogated and debriefed, is “What did you eat?” Her group had rations for two weeks but survived for months. “I don’t remember eating,” she says. Later we will see the group, dazed, trying to remember what has happened and trying to figure out how much time has gone by based on how much food is gone. They do not know where they are or how long they have been there. Their communications technology does not work. Even the most basic technology, a compass directed only by the magnetism of the North Pole, does not work. They are literally disoriented. The women are there because of their expertise in science, but they cannot even manage some of the most fundamental cognitive tasks. They are not sure whether they cn trust each other. They are there to observe and report but they cannot trust their perceptions or analysis.

And we may not be able to trust our own. This movie puts its cards on the table with an opening that reveals the end. This will be an escape room/haunted house set in the wilds of the Florida swamp story with Lena as the “final girl,” the last woman standing. “It all goes back to the first cell,” we hear Lena tell her class of biology students. Cells do not die; they reproduce. Everything alive is a piece of the first cell. As the women on this mission have to decide whether they want to understand or fight the shimmer, another option presents itself.

Garland uses luscious, even seductive visuals in the verdant Florida swamp setting to beguile and horrify us, sometimes both at once. This is more than mind-bending; it is mind-expanding, something of an intellectual shimmer creating a cognitive distortion of its own.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some very grisly and disturbing images, guns, grenade, fire, suicide, animal attacks, some strong language, and explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: Why did Lena say she owed it to Kane to go on the mission? Why didn’t she tell the other women about her relationship to Kane? What would you do if you were in charge of containing the Shimmer? What is the relationship of this story to Lena’s lecture about cells?

If you like this, try: “Arrival,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Solaris,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Midnight Special,” and “Coherence”

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Samson

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 5:10 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and battle sequences
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, murder, torture, battle scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018

The Biblical story of the Jewish man who still stands as the exemplar of strength has been brought to the screen by Pure Flix, a sober, sincere retelling of the story that is intended for both religious and secular audiences. As Hollywood has recognized several times in the past, including a big-budget studio epic from Cecil B. De Mille, the story has all of the essentials for drama, a hero of extraordinary power who suffered loss and betrayal and ultimately sacrificed himself to defeat the Philistine leaders who were oppressing his people.

Copyright 2018 Pure Flix

Samson is played by Taylor James, a British actor who had a small part in the “Justice League” movie. In the beginning of the film he is confident and impetuous. He has pledged a life of piety, which means no drinking and never cutting his hair. In return, he has been gifted with great strength. He is not afraid to fight. But he does not consider that it may not be he who pays the consequences. King Balek (an icy Billy Zane) commands a powerful army and does not hesitate to murder the Jews who object, even in the mildest terms, to his brutal demands.

And then Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman. His parents (Lindsay Wagner as Zealphonis and Rutger Hauer as Manoah) know that a marriage would create great risk for the couple and for the Jewish community. But Samson is sure he can make it work. It is a tragic mistake.

The screenwriters made some good choices in expanding the story, creating parallels between the two fathers, Manoah and Balek, and their sons. Balek is as cruel and demanding with his son, Rallah (Jackson Rathbone, in one of the film’s strongest performances) as he is with the Jews. Rallah’s struggle to find his own way gives more texture to the story.

The ambitions of the filmmakers are admirable, but a bit beyond their capacity and it has an amateurish quality that makes this more like the movies you see in Sunday school than the movies you see in theaters. Pure Flix is not Cecil B. De Mille, and director Bruce MacDonald’s staging of the big fight scenes and the literally crashing climax lacks intensity. But it is a respectful and heartfelt portrayal of a story whose power is undimmed over the millennia.

Note: Other movie versions of this story include 2013’s Samson, 1984’s Samson and Delilah, Cecil B. De Mille’s 1948 Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature, and the animated Keep the Trust: The Story of Samson and Delilah

Parents should know that this film includes extended violence including murder and battle scenes with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: How does Samson change over the course of the film? Why does he change? Why does Delilah cut his hair?

If you like this, try: “The Ten Commandments” and “The Nativity Story”

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