How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Posted on May 31, 2018 at 4:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sci-fi peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 1, 2018
Copyright 2018 A24

Three suburban British schoolboys in the 1990’s are big fans of punk because it seems thrilling to challenge authority and pretty much everything.  But they are not very knowledgeable about anything outside of their own experience, and so when they accidentally wander into a strange party that happens to be a bunch of aliens, they just assume that they must be American girls. Americans, girls, and aliens — they’re all equally unknown, and so, for these boys anyway, easy to confuse.

Neil Gaiman’s sly short story has been lovingly adapted by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Rabbit Hole”), with a breakout performance by Tony-winner Alex Sharp as Enn (short for Henry), a sweet-natured kid who, like his two best friends, loves punk and really, really, really wants to learn how to talk to girls.  Somehow, though, at parties he’s the one who ends up in the kitchen talking to someone’s mum. One night, after a punk concert, they go in search of a party they heard about but end up knocking on the wrong door.  Inside, each room has a different gathering or ritual or happening going on, all exceptionally attractive people (though one has made a mistake in manifesting and has a weird forked finger).

We know what it will take Enn the whole movie to figure out.  These are not American girls. They are aliens, on some sort of galactic tour.  And one of them, named Zan (Elle Fanning, looking far too perfect to be a human) is an alien version of punk, open-minded, curious, and inclined to break the rules. She and Enn go out exploring the world together, and they explore each other a bit, too.

The fun of all fish out of water films is seeing our world, in this case our former world, through fresh eyes. We may laugh as Zan discovers what happens when a human body processes food or speaks whatever comes into her head without understanding social norms like privacy or embarrassment. But we also appreciate her wonder at the gritty, harsh British suburb and the very things that punk is rebelling against. Her encounter with a punk queen (Nicole Kidman with gusto and evident enjoyment) is surprisingly endearing. And when Zan’s alien leaders want to interfere, well, let’s just say that it can be a real advantage to have punks on your side. A magical musical number brings everything together in quite literal terms.

Sharp is the real deal. I was struck by his performance on Broadway and really happy to see him in this film. He is able to convey innocence that comes from being true-hearted, not from a slapstick kind of awkwardness. Fanning continues to be one of the most appealing young performers in films today, always thoughtful and heartfelt. Their Romeo and Juliet romance is sweet and touching, with the adventures of Enn’s friends providing some counterpoint. Punk in this film is not angry so much as revolutionary, fueled by ideas and optimism. That may seem like an alien idea today, but Mitchell makes it seem right on time.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, teen partying, drinking, drugs, nudity, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: What does punk mean to you? What is punk today? Why didn’t Zan want to follow the rules?

If you like this, try: “Stardust” and “Coraline,” also based on books by Neil Gaiman

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted on May 22, 2018 at 2:32 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi style peril, action, and violence, chases, shootouts, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

The moment I became a “Star Wars” fan forever was in the cantina scene in what I will always refer to as the first “Star Wars” movie, now of course known as Episode IV, “A New Hope.” It was when Ben Kenobi tells Han (Harrison Ford, of course) he hopes to avoid any Imperial entanglements, and Han leans back and says, “Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it?” with so much rakish charm that we have to instantly forgive him for bragging about making the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs. (We will always be too polite to mention that parsecs measure distance not time. Who knows, maybe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, they told time in parsecs.)

So, would I like to see that Kessel run? And how Han met Chewy the wookiee? And how me met the dashing buccaneer, Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams in Episodes V and VI and here by master-of-all-arts Donald Glover? And the bet that won Han the brand-spanking-new Millennium Falcon? Written by “Empire Strikes Back” and “Force Awakens” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, with his son Jonathan (“Dawson’s Creek”)? With the divine Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) voicing a slightly loopy and more than slightly lippy droid? You bet I do!

Does it deliver? You bet your Han Solo hanging dice it does! Does Han shoot first? This time he does!

This prequel has the wonderfully charismatic Alden Ehrenreich (the “Would that t’were so simple” guy from “Hail, Ceasar!”) as Han, who lives with other orphans in a work camp led by Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Think Fagin, without the warmth. He has a plan to escape with the girl he loves, Qi’ra (“Game of Thrones” dragon-rider Emilia Clarke). Han is a bit of a rascal, but also an optimist back in these teenage years. “Wherever we go it can’t be worse than where we’ve been,” he says. But we know it can.

And as we know from films like “Casablanca” and “The Fifth Element,” whether it’s the letters of transit or the multipass, you have to have the right paperwork to get away. Han escapes (and in the film’s cheesiest moment, is assigned a last name based on his solitary status) but Qi’ra is captured. Han decided to enlist with the Imperial forces to get trained as a pilot so he can return to save her.

Three years later, Han has been thrown out of the academy and is now a grunt in the Imperial military. He meets a bandit named Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and his ragtag crew (is there any other kind?) of daredevils, and agrees to join forces with them on a heist so he can get a ship go back and rescue Qi’ra. This leads to a marvelously staged sci-fi version of a western train robbery.

It turns out that Beckett is not stealing on his own behalf, but working for someone else, someone who is not forgiving when things do not go well, harking back to the original cantina scene again, where we learn that Han had to jettison the cargo he was delivering to Jabba the Hutt. The big crime boss is Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany, with scars across his face as though a space tiger clawed his cheeks, scars that redden when he gets angry. Beckett and Han have to try again.

Along the way Han meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando. I am not going to spoil how; I’ll just say that both encounters are fitting and highly entertaining. Han does meet up with Qi’ra again, but is not ready to see how she has been affected by what she has had to do to survive. She joins the team and they take on another big heist. There’s a high-stakes card game, a trial by combat, and good advice that gets ignored. And the better you know the series, the more references and callbacks you will be delighted to discover. There are new insights about well-known characters and intriguing new ones, especially Waller-Bridge as a droid with a few crossed wires. In addition to the touches that center this in the “Star Wars” universe, there are references to classic movie genres, heist films and westerns and maybe “The Wages of Fear.” It may not be necessary, but it is most welcome, a thrilling and warm-hearted adventure in its own right that fits as satisfyingly into the “Star Wars” universe as that last piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

Parents should know that like all “Star Wars” movies, this one has non-stop peril and action with some disturbing images and many characters injured and killed. There is some mild language and some alcohol.

Family discussion: What do you think happened when Han was at the Academy? What is Han’s greatest skill?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films

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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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Pacific Rim Uprising

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:06 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with disturbing images, giant robots, alien monsters, explosions, mass destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
I know you’re all eager to hear whether you will understand this movie if you haven’t seen (or, more likely, saw and forgot) the first one. Here is my answer: you won’t understand this film even if you did see and remember the first one and it just doesn’t matter. The first one was about giant robots fighting alien monsters and it ended with Idris Elba giving a great pep talk to the troops and then sacrificing himself to save the world.

Second verse, same as the first. Even bigger robots.  Even meaner monster aliens.  Even dumber dialogue.  Buildings knocked down and shattered as though they were made of eggshells.  A volcano. Plus mutant robot monster aliens.  A near-feral girl with a gift for creating robots.  A pilot with daddy issues.

And, I can’t help it, since it takes two pilots who mind-meld in a process called “drift” to operate the giant robots called Jaegers in perfect synchronization, every time they do it I keep thinking they’re playing Dance Dance Revolution.

That would be only slightly more silly than the actual storyline (hmm, a “Step Up”/”Pacific Rim” crossover — I offer this idea freely, noting that there is a promise of a third chapter at the end of the film).

“Star Wars'” John Boyega (who also co-produced) plays Jake, the son of the Idris Elba character. As he explains in a striking opening scene, the world has in some ways returned to normal after the defeat of the Kaiju monsters, though their enormous skeletons are still a reminder of the fight, one right next to the pool where Jake is enjoying a life of girls and parties. He has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps as a pilot or a hero. Like his “Star Wars” pal Rey, he is a scavenger, looking Jaeger robot junkyards. But things go wrong when a helmeted motorcycle rider steals the special part he promised to some very unforgiving guys. I note here the famous Roger Ebert rule that a mysterious helmeted figure will always turn out to be female. Yes, Amara (Cailee Spaeny) is not only female but young, and a Shuri-like tech whiz who is building her own Jaeger. The two of them end up in jail, and then, of course, sent to pilot training. “Ender’s Game”-style, younger recruits are taken because they are better at drifting.

When they arrive, Amara excitedly recognizes all the various Jaegers as a way of reintroducing us to them, and, discovering who Jake is, reminds us again that his father was a hero and he is not too happy about that. The tough, this-is-serious-business commanding officer is Nate (Scott Eastwood, channeling his dad), who says things like, “You and I both know you could have been great.”

There’s also a lot of “We need it now.” “It can’t be done.” “Do it anyway” “I need more time!” “We don’t have any!” “You got this!” “Let’s do this!” “Will it work?” “One way to find out!” talk and a lot of “20 kilometers to impact” military/tech language. And Jake says he can’t give a pep talk like his dad but he does. Does it include “This is OUR time!” Yes, it does.

The good thing is that the movie does not just know how silly it is — it embraces the silliness. The better thing is that it has EVEN BIGGER ROBOTS fighting EVEN BIGGER MUTANT ROBOT ALIENS! No matter how dumb it gets, no matter that the robots and monsters have more personality than the humans, no matter how much it seems like a mash-up of “Transformers,” “Ender’s Game,” “Starship Troopers,” and anime, it is undeniably fun to see robots bashing monsters, and thankfully there isn’t much in between the battles to slow things down.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, scary monsters, some disturbing images, sad death of parents, issues of sacrifice, brief strong language, brief crude humor

Family discussion: Why did Jake insist that he was not like his father? How do you think the drift works? How do you prevent being defined by other people?

If you like this, try: The first “Pacific Rim,” “Ender’s Game,” and “Starship Troopers”

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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
Date Released to DVD: June 5, 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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