Book Club

Posted on May 17, 2018 at 5:11 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sex-related material throughout and for language
Profanity: Some strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 18, 2018

Copyright 2018 Paramount
Hey, people behind “Sex and the City,” you might want to call your lawyers. Maybe those of you behind “The Golden Girls,” too. “Book Club,” starring four Oscar winners from the 1970’s, is pretty much an AARP version of SATC, with four women who endlessly confide everything in each other, mostly about sex and some about romance. How does a movie with these magnificent, strong, smart stars fail the Bechdel test?

In this mix, Jane Fonda plays Samantha, I mean Vivian, the luxury hotel owner who has a lot of sex but only with men she doesn’t care about. “I can’t sleep with people I like,” she says referring to the literal act of slumber. “I gave that up in the 90’s.” Mary Steenburgen plays Charlotte, I mean Carol, happily married to a man she loves (Craig T. Nelson), but not happy about their humdrum sex life. Candice Bergen is Miranda, I mean Sharon, a judge who is long-divorced and resolutely single, living only with a cat called Ginsburg. And Diane Keaton plays a character named Diane who is somewhere between Carrie and “Golden Girls'” Rose, a sweet-natured recent widow with two devoted and over-solicitous daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton), who want her to leave her home and move in with them in Arizona.

The women have had a book club together for decades, mostly an excuse for them to get together. When Vivian hands out copies of the naughty bondage and discipline Fifty Shades of Grey novel by E.L. James, it causes all four of them to rethink their own romantic and sexual options. Vivian reconnects with the guy she almost married four decades earlier (Don Johnson, whose daughter starred in the movie version of Fifty Shades). Diane meets a very handsome man on a plane (Andy Garcia) and has to decide if she is open to a new relationship. Sharon decides to try swiping right with a little online dating and ends up having dinner with a tax lawyer (Richard Dreyfuss, every bit as charming as he was in “The Goodbye Girl“). And Carol tries to spice it up with her recently retired husband, who seems to have no interest in sex.

This provides many opportunities for the foursome to get together to discuss each other’s situations in detail. And if you think that they might omit the makeover scene with everyone weighing in on what one of them should wear on a big date and a scene of triumph over the ex’s new young love, rest assured they did not.

It is good to see these brilliant stars give it their best, which is what it takes to overcome the drippy screenplay, co-written by director Bill Holderman (with Erin Simms), and pedestrian direction. It’s like taking a Hallmark Romance Channel movie script and instead of casting the farm team (1990’s television series stars), it sends in the All-Pro heavy hitters. Or a “Love Boat” episode from the days when one segment always featured some 80-something former movie star. This group is able to carry it pretty far, especially Fonda, clearly relishing her role, and Garcia, who is able to give some grounding to a thinly written Prince Charming character. But the silly premise, Bumble product placement, clunky double entendre, unimaginative soundtrack, and Viagra humor make us long for the more reliable middle-age female empowerment fluff of Nancy Meyers.

Parents should know that this film has extensive and explicit sexual references and situations, including the visible results of a double does of Viagra, played for comedy, as well as some strong language and alcohol.

Family discussion: Why were Diane’s daughters so worried about her? Why was it hard for her to tell them no? Why was Vivian reluctant to become close to Arthur? Did the books have an impact on their choices?

If you like this, try: “The Jane Austen Book Club” and some of the earlier films of these stars like “Barefoot in the Park,” “Starting Over,” “Melvin and Howard,” and “Annie Hall”

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Fifty Shades Freed

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 6:36 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including kidnapping, punching, knife, gun, chase
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 7, 2018

Copyright 2017 Universal
“The worse sin passion can commit is to be joyless,” wrote Dorothy Sayers. And Fifty Shades Freed is Exhibit A. It’s more of an endless perfume commercial than a story, with beautiful people smooching (and more) in a series of increasingly luxurious settings and modes of transportation. Viewers may more likely to find their breath taken away by the Birkin bag Ana carries than the licking-ice-cream-off-Christian’s-chest scene, the “You own this?” about the fancy private airplane response, “We own this” more than “meet me in the Red Room of pain.”

These are people who are supposed to be exceptionally successful at their jobs who are somehow not especially committed to them or particularly good at them. Anna is a college drop-out now elevated to editor at the publishing company that happens to be owned by her new husband, but entirely on her merits, but the job itself is one of those cutesy Hallmark Christmas movie-type careers where all she has to do is congratulate her hunky author on his success and ask him gently about the next book and tell an assistant to increase the font size on a cover. More important, these are people who share a deep kink connection who are pretty, to use their term, vanilla. Anything at all interesting about the issue of the power dynamics between Ana and Christian is so soft-focus that it barely registers.

It seems Ms. James ran out of ideas about a book and a half ago. All they’ve got left is sex in this and that ultra-luxurious location (more shelter porn than porn porn here) interspersed with some very random thriller moments as a figure from the past wants to destroy the perfect prettiness of the romance. This gives us an opportunity for a chase scene on a mountain road that turns out to be, like so much in the film, foreplay, plus some not at all tense would-be thriller moments and one pretty funny joke.* The tedium is occasionally lessened by some pop song montages. The music is not that great, but it is better than the dialogue. And then, the final whack of the cinematic riding crop, the utterly unnecessary remix montage featuring highlights of the films that we were hoping to have forgotten.

*New variation of the Gothika rule: I will give away the joke to anyone who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com to save you the time and money of seeing the film.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive and explicit sexual references and situations with some BDSM activity, nudity, some strong language, alcohol, and peril and violence including kidnapping, a gun, knives, and punching.

Family discussion: Why did Ana object to Christian’s behavior in the red room on one occasion? What made each of them jealous?

If you like this, try: “9 1/2 Weeks”

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The Big Sick

Posted on June 22, 2017 at 5:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references
Profanity: Strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very serious illness
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 2017
Copyright Amazon 2017

The more specific the story, the more universal. This is a very specific story. Indeed, you are unlikely ever again to see a romantic comedy with one of the pair spending half of the film in a coma. And that is not the couple’s biggest obstacle. Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), plays a character named Kumail Nanjiani in a story based on his relationship to Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan and called Emily Gardiner in the film), who is now his wife and the co-screenwriter of the smart, touching, heartfelt and very funny film. It is beautifully directed by Michael Showalter, as always unsurpassed in meticulous casting of even the smallest roles.

Real-life Nanjiani and his movie alter ego are Pakistani immigrants from traditional families. Every time he visits his parents for dinner, an unmarried Pakistani woman “happens to drop in.” They have made it very clear that they expect him to marry a woman who is Pakistani and Muslim. Gordon is neither; she is white and from North Carolina. Just after they break up because he could not say that they could have a future together, she suddenly becomes critically ill and is placed in a medically induced coma.  He gets the call when she is hospitalized and has to be the one to call her parents. He meets them for the first time in the hospital waiting room, where they are understandably frosty (he broke their daughter’s heart) and preoccupied (she’s in a coma).

They would rather that he not be there. And his parents find out that he has not been honest with them and they tell him they cannot accept his feelings for Emily. So, in the second half of the movie there is another kind of love story, about the love between parents and their children and the partners their children choose.

It is also a story about a man learning to be honest with himself about who he is and what he wants. What lifts this out of the recent glut of arrested development movies is its compassion for all parties (the film nicely acknowledges that Nanjiani’s brother has a very successful and satisfying marriage arranged the traditional way and presents as one of the candidates a woman so seemingly perfect for him that we almost root for her) and Nanjiani’s thoughtful, self-deprecating but confident performance. The best stand-up comics mine their own lives for material, with observations that make us see our own lives, and especially our follies and irrationalities, in sharper relief — that’s relief in both senses of the word.

Best of all, the movie itself is proof that they lived happily ever after.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, family conflict, and very serious illness.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Kumail tell Emily about his family’s concerns? How should you decide what traditions to keep and which ones to leave behind?

If you like this, try: “Ruby Sparks” (also with Kazan, who wrote the screenplay) and “50-50” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, also based on a true story

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Everything, Everything

Posted on May 18, 2017 at 5:57 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medication
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of potentially deadly illness, reference to sad death, domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017

Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
“Everything, Everything,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, is an updated fairy tale about a princess trapped in a castle and the prince who does not exactly rescue her but gives her a reason to rescue herself.

It’s not an enchantment or a curse that keeps her inside. It’s an illness that means any exposure to bacteria or a virus could be fatal. Maddy (Amandla Stenberg, Rue in “The Hunger Games”) cannot remember a time when she was allowed to be outdoors.

Diagnosed at 2 with the immune deficiency SCID, Maddy lives in an irradiated and sterile environment. She has never left her home and has never met anyone other than her doctor mother (Anika Noni Rose), her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera), and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo). She has books, she has an exercise machine, she has 100 identical white t-shirts, and she has an online SCID support group. She and her mother watch movies and play phonetic scrabble. Maddy studies architecture and builds model rooms, placing the figure of an astronaut in each one. This avatar is her opposite. Her world is measured in square feet; the astronaut’s is unlimited.

Maddy stands at the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the backyard and imagines what it would feel like to stand on grass or feel a breeze of unfiltered air. And she has a seat in the corner of her bedroom overlooking the house next door, which is how she peers down at a new family moving in, a new family with a boy who has a beautiful smile. He is Olly (Nick Robinson of “Kings of Summer”). He draws his phone number on his window opposite her bedroom, and soon they are texting each other, sweetly portrayed as a face-to-face conversation at a table in Maddy’s model diner, with the astronaut looking on. She wears white; he wears black. She says, “When I talk to him, I feel like I’m outside.” But when she talks to him, she wants to go outside. And both of them find their worlds getting less black and white.

The elements of a young teen romantic fantasy are all here, primarily the disapproving parent, the utterly devoted and hunky but not too aggressive young male, adoring and supportive, and the big reason that they cannot get too physical, except maybe one perfect time. In “Twilight,” he was a vampire who could lose control and kill her. Here it’s just his normal human germs. Anyone over the age of 15 may be distracted by impracticalities and plot developments that go from improbable to preposterous, but even people who know that you have to have ID to get on an airplane and money to pay a credit card bill might just enjoy the pleasures of watching Maddy wake up to the world and Olly, through her, wake up to a few of his own.

Parents should know that this film includes risky teen behavior, some strong language, serious illness, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Did Carla make the right decision? Why does Maddy put an astronaut in her model rooms?

If you like this, try: “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Before I Fall” and “The Fault in Our Stars”

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Beauty and the Beast

Posted on March 16, 2017 at 5:55 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, violence, peril and frightening images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fairy tale peril and violence, wolves, mob, guns
Diversity Issues: Very subtle suggestion that a character might be gay, tolerance a metaphorical theme of the film
Date Released to Theaters: March 17, 2017

Copyright Disney 2017
Copyright Disney 2017
Disney’s live action remake of one of its most beloved animated fairy tales is every bit as enchanting as we could hope, gently updating and expanding the story to give the characters more depth and appeal and filling it with movie magic.

In a prologue, we see that the Beast was once a handsome but vain and selfish prince who cared only about beauty. An enchantress cursed him to become a beast, the courtiers all turned into furniture, serving pieces, and accessories. If the Beast cannot find a way to love and be loved before the last petal falls from the enchanted rose, they will never return to human form. The Beast has given up. He is angry, hurt, and terrified that he is unlovable, as Stevens shows us with just his voice, posture, and piercing blue eyes.

Emma Watson, best known as Hermione in the Harry Potter films, plays Belle, introduced in the opening musical number as a bit of an outsider in her small “provincial” French village. She loves to read, but seems to have read everything on the one shelf of books in the town. Belle is not concerned with her looks, and Watson is encouragingly messy, with locks of hair falling around her face and sturdy boots instead of the animated version’s flats. We can see that she truly loves to learn and has an independent, adventurous spirit.

Belle adores her father (Kevin Kline as Maurice), an artist turned repairman, and she is an inventor herself, creating a washing machine that can do the laundry while she reads. Gaston (a terrific Luke Evans, clearly enjoying the way Gaston enjoys being Gaston) is an arrogant soldier who wants to marry Belle because she is beautiful and because she is the only girl in town who does not think he is dreamy. “She hasn’t made a fool of herself just to gain my favor.” Like the prince who turned into a beast, Gaston judges people only on how they look and how they respond to him.

Away from home, Maurice is chased by wolves and ends up seeking shelter at the Beast’s mysterious enchanted castle where the candelabra and teacup can talk. As he leaves, he picks a rose for Belle and the Beast (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”) furiously captures him. Belle tries to rescue her father but ends up taking his place as the Beast’s prisoner.

But in this “tale as old as time,” we know that Belle and Beast will begin as “barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly,” and it is genuinely touching to see how it unfolds. With additional songs from original composer Alan Menken (with lyrics from Tim Rice, along with some lyrics written by the late Howard Ashman for the original film that were not used), some backstory about both Belle and the Prince, and a more thoughtful portrayal of the development of their relationship. I was especially glad to see that their shared love of books played an important part in their connection.

The storyline is unexpectedly resonant with contemporary challenges, with the greatest threat from an angry mob suspicious of anything unfamiliar and easily spurred to violence. We get to see a bit more of the enchantress behind the curse as well.

The two moments fans of the original film will count on are the “Beauty and the Beast” waltz in the ballroom (now sung by Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts) and the musical extravaganza “Be Our Guest” (now sung by Ewan McGregor as Lumiere), and both are gorgeously, joyously stunning, but the moments that stay with us are the sensitive performances and the tenderness of the relationships.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon/fantasy peril and violence, wolves, a monster, a curse, some scary images, and a subtle reference to a gay crush.

Family discussion: What did the Beast learn from his enchantment? Why is Gaston so selfish? What do Belle and the Beast discover that they have in common?

If you like this, try: the animated original and the live action “Jungle Book” and “Cinderella”

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