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
Date Released to DVD: August 13, 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. In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, 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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Based on a book Date movie DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy Features & Top 10s movie review Romance Science-Fiction

Life of the Party

Posted on May 10, 2018 at 5:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug content and partying
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, gun, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 11, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 7, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

Thank you, Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, for figuring out that what we want to see is Melissa McCarthy as America’s sweetheart, not a deranged sociopath. In their previous films, “Tammy” and “The Boss” and in McCarthy’s “Identity Thief” the brilliant comic actress with the adorable dimples was cast as weird, heartless, damaged and damaging characters. It takes nothing away from McCarthy’s considerable dramatic talent (she was outstanding in “St. Vincent” and we are very much looking forward to her performance later this year in the fact-based story of a literary fraud and forger, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) to say that she is at her very best and funniest when she is irrepressibly sunny.

And so Falcone and McCarthy have created just that in Life of the Party, where she plays Deanna, a loving mother and housewife who learns, as she and her husband (Matt Walsh of “Veep”) drop their daughter off at college for her senior year, that her husband is leaving her because he has fallen in love with another woman (“Modern Family’s” Julie Bowen).

Deanna, who wears a “Proud Mom” sweatshirt and has devoted her whole life to her family, is angry and disappointed. She decides that her biggest regret was dropping out of school when she became pregnant with Maddie (Molly Gordon), so what she wants to do is go back and get her degree. This has the additional benefit of being on campus with Maddie who is predictably a bit nonplussed, but supportive. And Maddie’s sorority sisters love Deanna’s enthusiasm and kindness. Yes there’s a mean girl (and an 80’s party dance-off! Yay!), but we don’t have to slog through the expected scenes of students underestimating Deanna just so she can show them how wrong they were.

As in McCarthy’s other best comic roles, in “Bridesmaids,” “Spy,” “Ghostbusters,” and “The Heat,” Deanna may be awkward and overly effusive, but she is also supremely capable and in most situations, confident as well. It’s easy to get a cheap laugh from incompetence and failure, and there are a few of those here, primarily from the underused Gillian Jacobs, playing an undergraduate who was in a coma for eight years and has some catching up to do. Deanna may have a problem with oversharing, she does not always make good choices, and for some reason public speaking puts her into a panic, but she is both smart and wise. She has a sustaining friendship (the invaluable Maya Rudolph) and a perpetual sunniness that everyone around her finds endearing. Her soon-to-be-ex with a skinny blonde girlfriend and a new earring tells her he needs an “upgrade.” But it is Deanna who finds herself upgrading in every category, including a handsome and devoted young beau, played by the very appealing Luke Benward. That is a satisfying starting point for some mostly-adorable silliness and a lot of heart. Deanna repeatedly says she is “down to clown,” which is supposed to be an eye-rolling mom-ism. But it is McCarthy who is truly down to clown and we are all the better for it.

Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations, potty humor and crude jokes, drinking and drugs, comic mayhem, peril and violence, a gunshot, and some mild language.

Family discussion: What did the girls like about Deanna? What was the biggest change she made?

If you like this, try: More college comedies, including “Back to School,” “Sydney White,” “High Time,” and “The House Bunny”

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Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Features & Top 10s movie review Movies

Tully

Posted on May 3, 2018 at 2:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drunk driving
Violence/ Scariness: Auto accident with injuries
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 4, 2018
Date Released to DVD: July 30, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

With “Tully,” their third collaboration, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody are approaching a “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight”-style series about the challenges of growing up and getting older.

It may not be the same set of characters, but “Juno,” “Young Adult,” and now “Tully” can be seen as a continuing story with smart, flawed female protagonists. The first was a pregnant teenager, then a floundering author trying to reclaim the life she thought she was going to have when she was in high school, and now a married mother of two, pregnant with a third, trying to connect with the person she once was when all of her time and attention was not taken up with obligations to others. Charlize Theron plays Marlo, the exhausted mother, and Mackenzie Davis plays the title character, a night nanny who turns out to be just what Marlo needs in ways that surprise her and us.

Marlo is exhausted and overwhelmed. Her second child is a son who is described by the school principal in the words that strike terror and a fierce defensiveness in the heart of a parent: “quirky” and “out of the box” — and then, finally, “not a good fit.” Every morning, with infinite patience and tenderness, Marlo gently brushes his whole body because she saw online that it might help him with sensory integration. When he has a meltdown because she isn’t parking in the usual spot, she is compassionate. But it is clear that she is giving so much to her family that she has lost some sense of herself and her own needs.

Marlo has a brother (Mark Duplass) who offers her a baby gift — the services of a night nanny, someone who comes at night to help new parents get some rest. Marlo and her husband (Ron Livingston) enjoy mocking her brother and his wife for being materialistic and bourgeois. It also makes them feel a bit superior and helps them ignore their envy at his financial stability. The idea of a “night nanny,” even paid for by someone else seems like just another mockable bougie pretension. But then Marlo has the baby as her husband’s job keeps him away from home and, even more exhausted and overwhelmed, she calls the number her brother gave her, and Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up like a hipster Mary Poppins.

She’s not just a baby whisperer; she’s a Marlo whisperer, too.  With patience and kindness, she listens attentively, and she very gently and supportively guides Marlo, to feel peaceful and cared for.  “Kiss the baby,” she says, as Marlo begins to trudge upstairs to bed. “She’ll be different in the morning.  We all will.”  Marlo comes down the next morning and the house is neat.  Tully even makes cupcakes.  She even presses Marlo about reconnecting to her husband.

Theron’s performance here is superb.  “Brave” when referring to an actress, usually means that she doesn’t look like a size zero teenager.  And Theron went for it here, gaining 50 pounds from her “Atomic Blonde” action star look, and she does indeed appear like a very pretty woman who has had three children.  But what is brave here is her extraordinary emotional authenticity, her vulnerability, and her wry humor.  When she tells the officious, though superficially kind school principal that the baby is a blessing, we can see three levels to that word.  Marlo is saying the word she thinks will ingratiate her with the principal who is trying to politely extricate her son from the school (those deadly words, “not a good fit”).  She is sarcastic (Cody loves sarcasm).  But, you know what? She really believes it, too.  Tully’s greatest contribution is reminding Marlo that all that is overwhelming her is what she once wished for.  This is her happy ever after ending and even if it’s going to be messy, there has to be a way to hold on to that before she ends up missing it.

Sharply but lovingly observed, clearly based on deeply lived experience, with lots of Cody’s shrewd wit and enormous compassion for its characters, “Tully” is as welcome in theaters as its title character is at Marlo’s door.

Parents should know that this film includes glimpses of pornography, explicit sexual references and nudity, very strong language, childbirth scene, drinking and drunkenness, and an auto accident with injuries.

Family discussion: Who is Tully? Why did she visit Marlo? Why are Marlo and her brother so different? What does “quirky” mean?

If you like this, try: “Juno,” by the same director and writer

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues movie review

I Feel Pretty

Posted on April 19, 2018 at 5:17 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and accidents, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 20, 2018
Date Released to DVD: July 16, 2018
copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

Amy Schumer shines in I Feel Pretty, an adorable fantasy that both draws from and slyly subverts the classic Cinderella story.

I’ve written before about the “makeover movie.” From the original Cinderella fairy tale to movies that range from “The Breakfast Club” to “Gigi” to “Clueless,” “Princess Diaries,” and “Now, Voyager.” There is something thrilling and akin to superheroic about the idea that a klutzy doof in glasses can be transformed into a capital B Beauty. And beauty has often been depicted as the primary power that a female character has, with an almost magical ability to control others, particularly men.  This is the story of someone who thinks she has had that makeover but everyone around her — including us — knows that she has not.

Renee (Schumer) desperately wishes she could be “undeniably pretty.” She works for a cosmetic company, where most of the employees look like — or are — supermodels. 1960’s real-life supermodel-turned-actress Lauren Hutton plays the company’s founder, and it is now run by her granddaughter, Avery (Michelle Williams). Renee is convinced that if she could just be conventionally beautiful she would have all of the love, attention, and fun she dreams of. When she meets a model (Emily Ratajkowski) she asks whether just walking off a plane in another country leads to an invitation to a fabulous trip on a yacht with beautiful and wealthy people, and the answer is, well, pretty much yes.

And then one day, Renee has a SoulCycle accident and hits her head badly. When she regains consciousness, somehow she sees herself as the beauty she always dreamed of being. She is immediately and irrepressibly confident, which leads her to apply for a more visible job as the company’s receptionist and to flirt with the guy in line behind her at the dry cleaner shop. Both are very successful. But she is less successful with those who knew and loved her as the “old” Renee, her best friends (Busy Phillips, married to the film’s co-writer/director, and Aidy Bryant).

I’m a bit mystified that this film has had some blowback from viewers who see it as exactly what it is opposing — a body-shaming underscoring of rigid standards of beauty.  On the contrary, this is the opposite of the makeover movie (including those listed above and many many others like “The Mirror Has Two Sides,” “Ash Wednesday,” “She’s All That,” and “Strictly Ballroom”), those films where a female character has to pretty up to be worthy of male attention.  Makeovers are to girl movies what origin stories are to boy movies — they reveal a transformational source of power.

This movie makes it clear that everyone — from the beauty industry itself to the standards of guys who use online dating sites to screen romantic prospects on the basis of looks to the snooty attendants at the gym who seem to think you have to have a perfect body to work out — is trying to meet standards that are (1) superficial and (2) impossible.  Some online commenters criticized the trailer for making fun of Schumer’s character for participating in the bikini contest.  But like her date and the guy who runs the bar, the movie expects us to be charmed by Renee’s pure pleasure in participating and feeling good about herself, and we are.

Characters in the film include a cosmetics executive who could be a supermodel who is insecure about her ability and her childlike voice and an actual model played by an actual supermodel (Emily Ratajkowski) who has her own reasons for low self-esteem.  It also makes it clear that confidence is itself an extremely attractive quality, as is consideration for and interest in others and competence on the job.  And when Renee herself briefly is almost swept away over a man’s good looks (and his confidence), she realizes that it is character that matters.  She learns that confidence in her looks can get her noticed, but being good at her job gets her respect.  She also has to learn that too much confidence can be a problem when her joy in her new persona makes her inconsiderate to her friends. 

There are elements in this story of Tom Hanks’ “Big” (which Renee watches) and “Never Been Kissed” (by the same screenwriter), and of the traditional cautionary fairy tale that wishes never turn out the way you hope.

It is fresh, funny, and heartwarming, with a genuinely beautiful performance by Schumer, ably supported by Williams, Bryant, Phillips, and Scovel, with some real insights about confidence, class, and empathy and a sparkle of romantic comedy magic.

Parents should know that this film includes some comic peril and violence including accidents with some graphic images, some strong language, and sexual references and a non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Where is the line between being confident and being obnoxious? Why did strangers appreciate Renee’s new attitude while her friends did not? What did Renee see when she looked in the mirror?

If you like this, try: “Shallow Hal” and “Pitch Perfect”

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Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Romance

Rampage

Posted on April 11, 2018 at 4:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language, and crude gestures
Profanity: About a dozen bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and action-style violence with chases, explosions, guns, bombs, monsters, many human and animal characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 13, 2018
Date Released to DVD: July 16, 2018
Copyright New Line Cinema 2018

Pay attention, my friends, this one is a little bit tricky. In his last movie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played an avatar in a movie about a video game. In Rampage, he plays a human in a movie based on a video game, though in the video game, big in arcades in the 1980’s, it was the animals who were the avatars, and your task as player was to help them destroy the city while Johnson’s human character in the film is there to protect it.

Still with me?

Well, maybe “human” does not adequately describe Johnson’s character, the primatologist/Special Forces veteran Davis Okoye, the essence of movie hero, always ready with his fists or a quip or both at the same time. And, you know, he looks like The Rock.

Okoye works at a San Diego animal preserve, where he is especially close to an albino gorilla named George. They communicate via sign language. And it’s all downright Edenic until George is hit with spray from one of three canisters of gene-altering material that “edit” his DNA to make him grow to King Kong size and make him furious, aggressive, and destructive.

With the help of the beautiful scientist who developed the gene-editing juice, hoping to help humanity and not in any way aware that the evil corporation she was working for was planning to weaponize it. Naomie Harris plays Dr. Kate Caldwell, and Jake Lacy and Malin Akerman are the oh-so-evil brother and sister who run the corporation. Well, she’s evil; he’s way over his head. Then there’s Joe Manganiello as a mercenary hired by the evil sister, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a FBI official with a Southern accent, and a walloping lot of CGI as the three monsters — those two other canisters — Okoye has to find a way to stop.

If they ever give out an Oscar for efficiency of set-up, this movie is a contender. It quickly assigns an attribute to each character and lets us know immediately what the stakes are in every scene. Director Brad Peyton (“San Andreas,” also starring Johnson) knows we’re here for the action, and spends just enough time between scenes of shootouts, explosions, and chases to remind us why we should care what happens to the characters. Manganiello’s character has a big scar on his face, so we know he’s tough. The evil sister says, “There’s a reason we were doing these experiments in space and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity,” just to make it clear that she is the bad guy. In case we missed it the first time, when her hapless brother says, “You can’t liquidate all your problems,” she snaps back, “Agree to disagree.”

And Dr. Kate lies to her boss on the phone, so we know that she is not a rule follower. Plus, we glimpse a photo in her apartment showing her hugging a cancer patient, so we know she is nice and probably bereaved. Morgan’s FBI character has a seen-it-all, heard-it-all look but a bit of a twinkle in his eye. And a homing device has the three giant, hungry, and very hostile animals going full-speed to Chicago.

Does any of it make sense? Not really. Do we care? Not really. Just don’t think too hard about how long it would take for debris to fall from space, what condition it might be in, or how long it would take an antidote to work. This is a movie based on an arcade game, and it is much better than most game-based films.

In part that is because the game was from the 80’s and didn’t really have a storyline, so there was no risk of being too faithful or not faithful enough, and in part because it never takes itself too seriously. It takes the stunts and action seriously, though. There’s a wow of a plane crash and some good moments in the midst of a massive destruction of Chicago’s Loop. And George (motion capture actor Jason Liles) is, if not realistic, believable. Johnson is right in his sweet spot here, and so are we, with a popcorn treat to kick off the summer season.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and action-style violence with chases, explosions, guns, bombs, monsters, many human and animal characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, some strong language, and some crude humor.

Family discussion: Who should make the rules about genetic experimentation? Who in this film follows orders and who does not? Why did Davis say he was not a “people person?”

If you like this, try: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Transformers”

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Action/Adventure Based on a video game DVD/Blu-Ray
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