The Meg

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character drinks to deal with stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters injured and killed, characters sacrifice themselves to save others, some grisly and disturbing images, sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 10, 2018

This is what an international distribution deal come to life looks like on screen. Take an assortment of actors of various races representing the nationalities of the major movie markets, especially China. Come up with an instantly recognizable concept (a prehistoric shark 75 feet long that can chomp through a whale with one bite!), an instantly recognizable bad guy (arrogant, selfish billionaire, in case that isn’t redundant), an instantly recognizable action hero (yay, Jason Statham!). Let’s put an adorably precocious child in the group, and give her angel wings, for goodness’ sakes, to make sure we see how adorable she is.

Add tons of first-class stunt work and digital effects, and make sure the dialogue is disposable enough it won’t matter if it translates well. In fact, with lines like “Man vs. Meg isn’t a fight. It’s a slaughter” and some painfully awkward romantic banter, this movie would be better viewed with no dialogue at all.

Copyright Universal 2018

Jason Statham plays Jonas, an expert at deep sea rescue who in a prologue has to make a split-second terrible decision. He saves some people, but many others are killed, and he is blamed. He insists that it was the only choice, and that if he had tried to rescue the others, everyone would have been killed, but the official finding is that he was suffering from underwater-pressure induced diminished capacity that caused hallucinations and poor judgment. Five years later, he is living in Thailand and drinking to forget everything he has lost.

That is when he gets a visit from an old friend, Mac (Cliff Curtis). The giant shark they said was a hallucination is real. It is a megladon, previously thought to have been extinct for millions of years, but now discovered in an expedition funded by Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) a crass billionaire all faux bonhomie and limitless entitlement. The research operation has gone to Earth’s deepest spot to prove that what had been thought to be its bottom was a layer of gas, with a deeper part of the ocean underneath. The exploration ship, piloted by Lori (Jessica McNamee) has been trapped and no one else has the experience r expertise to rescue it.

“You’re going to offer me a job,” Jonas says, “and I’m going to say no. You’re going to offer me money, and I’m going to say no. You’re going to appeal to my better nature and I’m still going to say no.” But they bypass all of that to skip to the ultimate persuader: Lori is his ex-wife.

So, back on the job after a quick check-up with the team doctor. Fortunately, five years of drinking have not had any adverse affect whatsoever, as we will later confirm when we see Jonas in nothing but a towel. After that, it’s pretty much one action/rescue/escape scene after another, which is fine because the parts in between are not very good. A tragic death is played as romantic foreplay. And a racist stereotype is played as — the same racist stereotype? If there’s an effort to go meta, it fails.

Here’s the good news — the action scenes, stunts, and digital effects are really well done! Director Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) stages them well, with a series of different settings and circumstances that actually feel now and then almost like a real story. Each one builds on the next with an additional layer of difficulty and a different balance of stakes. The audience did cheer when one character was eaten. and we never fear for a second that anything would happen to that child, but overall, there are enough characters and enough variations of threat and logistical complications to keep each one interesting.

It would be easy for this movie to slide into “Frankenfish vs. Dinocroc” SYFY territory, but Statham strikes the right tone and it is great to see Curtis, who always brings great humanity and authenticity to the story.

SPOILER ALERT: The cute dog does not die.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop peril, suspense, and violence, with characters injured and killed and some grisly and disturbing images. Characters sacrifice themselves to save others. The movie also includes some strong language and drinking to deal with stress and depression.

Family discussion: How do Toshi and Heller decide what they should do? Can we explore without disrupting the environment or putting people at risk?

If you like this, try: “Jaws”

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BlacKkKlansman

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:24 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie

Copyright 2018 Focus Features
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is undercover through most of “BlacKkKlansman,” and not just on the job, but in the job and outside of it, too. The real-life Stallworth was the first black police officer, and later the first black detective in Colorado Springs, back in the 1970’s and he really did go undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan — over the phone. Spike Lee’s film is based on Stallworth’s book tells how Stallworth saw a classified ad, called the Klan, and, with the help of a white partner who was “Stallworth” for the in-person meetings, ended up a member in good standing, having phone conversations with the head of the organization, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). (All of this really happened.)

Stallworth also really went undercover at a lecture by black activist Stokely Charmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture, and who is played here by Corey Hawkins, conveying Ture’s magnetism and fiery brilliance and making an impression so strong in his brief scene that it resonates throughout the rest of the film. This rally is really the pivotal, as Washington shows us as close unguarded as Stallworth gets, which opens him up to pursuing Patrice (Laura Harrier), a pretty activist he meets there. But of course he has to stay undercover with her, too — personally, not professionally — because she has strong political feelings about working within the system in general and about the police in particular. (This character and their relationship are fictional.) Adam Driver, as Stallworth’s white partner, has his own double-undercover moments. He thinks it does not matter that he is Jewish, but as Stallworth tells him, he has skin in the game, too. Near the end of the film, Stallworth is undercover at least two levels when he is assigned to Duke’s security detail and must stand close to the man who does not know Stallworth is the man he spoke to in confidence over the phone.

Law enforcement might have been an unusual choice for a black man of that era, but in every other respect Stallworth seems born to be in law enforcement, happy to accept the offer, and clearly aware of the challenges he will face, from the superiors who assign him safe but boring jobs to racist comments from some of the other officers. Washington (a former pro football player and regular on “Ballers”) projects an easy physical confidence, nerves of steel, and a personal meticulousness, from his perfectly shaped Afro to his neatly ironed shirt and shined shoes. Lee, working with production designer Curt Beech, costume designer Marci Rodgers, and director of photography Chayse Irvin, bring a light touch to a 70’s vibe that owes as much to the movies and pop culture of the era as to what ordinary people and settings looked like. There’s a nice nod to 70’s movies as well in the graphics and sinuous, jazzy camerawork and the way the handsome, athletic Washington is lit like Shaft or Superfly.

There could be no better depiction of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” than the Klansmen and women in this film, who chat casually about hatred and terrorism the way other small groups of like-minded communities might talk about an upcoming bake sale. We can almost sympathize with a 1970’s wife who just wants a chance to do something important like the men do or the men who get a sense of fellowship in a shared interest. Topher Grace shows us Duke’s silky, ingratiating manner, and Lee shows us that complacent hatred may be the most insidious.

It may seem to some viewers that an opening montage of racist imagery, including D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and a scene of Alec Baldwin as a racist businessman are over the top, until we see the footage from 2017’s white supremacist rally Charlottesville one year before the release of this film. Lee is one of my favorite directors, but he sometimes has more ideas than story or characters in his films. Here, with Stallworth’s remarkable true and timely story, a star-making performance by Washington, whose resemblance to his double Oscar-winning father is more in his voice than his face, he has made one of his all-time best, most purely entertaining, and most important films.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of terrorist activities with peril and violence and very strong and offensive language. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: How did Ron and Patrice differ in their ideas about the best way to solve problems and make things better? What has changed and what has not since the 1970’s?

If you like this, try: the book by Ron Stallworth and Lee’s films “Inside Man,” “School Daze,” and “Chi-Raq”

Recommended reviews: Odie Henderson on rogerebert.com, Travis Hopson on Punch Drunk Critics

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Christopher Robin

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and mayhem, reference to sad death of a parent, brief wartime battle scenes
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 3, 2018
Copyright Disney 2018

You can’t become a child again. But you can reconnect to the child who still lives within you, and when you do, it means even more because you know how precious it is. That is not just the theme of “Christopher Robin.” It is the experience of watching it. Enchanting production design from Jennifer Williams and cinematography from Matthias Koenigswieser make the 100 Acre Wood the place anyone would love to do nothing in.

Last year year we had the very disappointing “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” a sour and unfocused film about the Milne family, the traumatized father, the distant mother, and the unhappy child who inspired the classic Winnie the Pooh books. This fantasy is far truer to the spirit of those books, and a most welcome late-summer pleasure. Those who know and love the books will be happy with the fidelity to the stories and characters. Those who do not know them will enjoy the film and, I hope, be inspired to read the books as well, and check out the Disney animated stories.

For those new to A.A. Milne: there are four books, two chapter books and two of poetry, about the life of young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien), and his stuffed toys, especially his best friend, a “bear of little brain” and unquenchable thirst for honey, Winnie the (or ther) Pooh, known affectionately just as Pooh. With his friends, the anxious Piglet, the gloomy donkey Eeyore, the devoted kangaroo mother Kanga and the baby she carries in her pocket, Roo, the bossy Rabbit and the occasionally wise Owl, he lives in the Edenic Hundred Acre Wood, where there is always time to pleasantly do nothing at all.

But the sad fact is that children grow up. “The day finally comes as it does to all children, to say good-gye.”  Christopher Robin is being sent to boarding school. He has one last tea in the woods with his friends, and then he’s gone.

We follow his story with Ernest Shepard-like illustrations that match those in the books, but it is idyllic no more. Christopher Robin’s father dies. He grows up (now played by Ewan McGregor) and falls in love with Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), but he is at war when their daughter Madeline is born.

And then he is home, working as an efficiency expert in a luggage company that is feeling a post-war pinch, and he is under enormous pressure to cut costs. He is affectionate but distracted and neglectful. When Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) asks for a bedtime story he picks up the nearest book and ends up reading to her about the industrial revolution. Then he lets Evelyn and Madeline down again by telling them he cannot join them on a weekend in the country because he has to work.

And then Pooh shows up in London (voiced by Jim Cummings, who also provided the endearing slightly husky voice for the Disney animated Pooh). He needs to be taken back home to find his friends. Christopher Robin (called Christopher by his wife and Robin at work) packs his paperwork in his briefcase (and his brolly, of course), and takes the train, shushing Pooh and trying to find a way to cut twenty percent out of the company’s expenses.

But then he cannot help being beguiled by the charms of his old friends and their enchanted world.  Children will enjoy Pooh’s simple questions as a classic comic ploy of having a character whose innocence makes them feel superior. Adults will realize that Pooh’s questions and comments may sound ignorant of adult life, as a bear of very little brain whose only concern has been finding honey might be, but in fact the very simplicity of them is what makes them profound.  Christopher Robin tells his daughter that “nothing comes from nothing.” But “Doing nothing,” Pooh says, “often leads to the very best kind of something.” He asks Christopher Robin, “Is a briefcase more important than a balloon?”

Christopher Robin is split in two, like his name. He has lost touch with himself.  He tells his boss that nothing matters more to him than his work and he tells his daughter she means the world to him, but he does not act as though either is true.  He has delivered the message of efficiency so thoroughly that when Evelyn tells Madeline to go play, she solemnly assures her mother “I’m going to play better and harder than any child has before.”

Christopher Robin has to rediscover the pleasures of, well, pleasure before he can share it with his daughter, and it is pure pleasure to see McGregor’s face shine with the joy of remembering how to play.  For all of his worry about taking care of everyone at the office and at home, he was doing poorly at both. His stuffed friends teach him how to take care of those you love with patience, by listening to them to understand what they really need. If his solution at the office is half “Mary Poppins” and half slightly skewed Keynesian economics, by then we are so sweetly beguiled, that seems just right.

Parents should know that this film includes comic peril and mayhem, reference to death of a parent, and brief wartime battle scenes.

Family discussion: Which questions from Pooh made Christopher Robin change his mind? Ask everyone in the family to describe a toy that they loved.  What comes from nothing?  Try playing “Say What You See” and see how different people’s answers are.

If you like this, try: the books by A.A. Milne and the Disney animated Pooh films

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Far from the Tree

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 5:39 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to a brutal murder, tense family situations, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 3, 2018
Copyright Sundance Selects 2018

All parents at some point look at children and think, “Who is this and how did they get to be part of my family?” Children think that from time to time about their parents, too, especially when they get to their teens. “Far from the Tree,” based on the award-winning book by Andrew Solomon, is a documentary about the most extreme versions of that sense of disconnection. Solomon tells his own story about growing up gay and the incomprehension and rejection he experienced from his heterosexual parents, who exemplified the conventions of their era. But most of the focus of the film is on other families: Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome and the mother who worries about how he will manage when she is gone, a young woman and a married couple who are Little People, a teenager with autism who is finally able to communicate with his family, and the parents and siblings of a teenager who committed an unthinkable crime.

The movie raises questions about nature and nurture, about what “normal” means, and about the different but both vitally important feelings of connection and support we get from the families we are born into and the families we find because we understand each other. Loini Vivao, a Little Person in an affectionate but otherwise average-sized family, wonders, “Is there anybody out there like me?” When she attends her first annual Little People convention, her sense of wonder and acceptance is breathtaking. When she is invited to appear in the convention’s fashion show, she immediately demurs. She is too shy. But then we see her glowing as she owns the catwalk.  One of the other attendees explains why this gathering is so important: “They come to be seen.  And to disappear.”  No one looks away or stares. When everyone is little, everyone is the right size.

That makes a conference room discussion among the organization’s leaders especially poignant.  The topic is an experimental new drug that could “cure” some forms of dwarfism. Like the controversy over cochlear implants, this raises the question of whether dwarfism is something that needs to be “cured.”   “I don’t think I need to be fixed,” says Leah Smith, who, with her husband, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Joseph Stramando, show us just how “normal” their lives are, casually using various work-arounds, from a wheelchair to a flip-flop sandal to push a hotel light switch.

Jason Kingsley’s parents wanted to prove the experts wrong, and they were successful, to a point.  When Jason was born with Down syndrome, the doctor told the parents, “We send them away before attachment is formed.”  But “you don’t write off a person because of the label that he wears,” his mother explains. With a lot of support, Jason became a literal poster child for people with Down syndrome, appearing on television to show that he was keeping pace academically.  Jason has a job, delivering mail in an office. He lives with two other men with Down syndrome and they call themselves “The Three Musketeers.”  It is not what his mother envisioned for him and she is concerned about his fragile understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality.  He thinks if he can go to Norway, he can meet Elsa from “Frozen.”

The most astonishing moment in the film is when Jack Allnut, severely impaired with autism and seemingly unable to communicate or even understand what is being said to him, is given a chance to use an alphabet board. His first message is stunning. His mother says, “My God, he’s in there. It’s like I was meeting him for the first time.”  And the saddest moment is the family of the teenager who committed a terrible crime. In a way, it was like they were meeting him for the first time.  The family continues to love and support him, but his two siblings say they have decided never to have children.

They may change their minds.  This movie is not so much about the family differences we have to surmount as it is about the imperishable love that sustains us.  As Norman Mclean says in “The River Runs Through It,” “we can love completely without complete understanding.”  The true greatness of families — and of humanity — is that we choose to do so.

Parents should know that this unrated film includes discussion of a brutal murder, pregnancy and miscarriage, disabilities, sex, sad offscreen deaths, and family tensions.

Family discussion: What makes you most like the rest of your family?  What makes you different?  Who is your tribe?

If you like this, try: “A Kid Like Jake” and the book by Andrew Solomon

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 5:29 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Off-screen self-mutilation and attempted suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 3, 2018

“Pray the gay away.”  That is the idea behind “gay conversion” facilities, now thankfully outlawed in fourteen states as contrary to both science and human dignity. But “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, is set in 1993. It might as well have been 1793 for the Puritanical attitude of the God’s Promise facility the title character is sent to when her date discovers her making out with a girl on prom night.

Copyright FilmRise 2018

Cameron (a performance of exceptional sensitivity by Chloe Grace Moretz) is packed up immediately by her aunt and uncle (her parents are dead) to become a “Disciple” at God’s Promise, run by the guitar-strumming, upbeat Reverend Rick, played by John Gallagher, Jr., showing us flickers of anxiety as he tries to reassure the teens at the facility that if he could be “cured” of being gay, so can anyone. The resident bad cop to Reverend Rick’s relentless cheer is Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), who runs a tight ship, whether she is telling Cameron that she will not allow her to be called “Cam” (“Cameron is already a masculine name. To abbreviate it only exacerbates your gender confusion.”) or directing the “Disciples” to reveal their most private conflicts in publicly posted iceberg diagrams. What is important lies beneath the surface, and that is dangerous enough to sink the Titanic, she explains.  There is a pretense of choice, as Cameron is given a contract to sign, though she is underage and has no alternative.

Marsh tells the teenagers that “There’s no such thing as homosexuality. There’s only the sin we all face.”  She compares being gay to dangerous, self-destructive behavior: “Would you let drug addicts throw parades for themselves?”  And she posits the cause of what they term SSA (same-sex attraction): “too much bonding with a father over sports,” for example.

A quiet tone keeps the outrageous setting from turning into parody, even when they watch the (real) Christian workout video, “Blessercize,” and the teenagers are asked leading questions like, “When did you let same sex attraction get in the way of your goals?”  While a non-conversion facility might impose some restrictions on interactions between the boys and girls, there are few here.  Presumably, despite professed very strict rules about sexual behavior, Marsh and Reverend Rick are hoping the opposite genders will tempt each other.

The film won the top award at Sundance, a tribute to the understated mood and to an outstanding performance from Moretz, who allows us to observe her as she observes those around her. Neither she nor we are miseducated by the end.

Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and situations, homophobia, some language, and marijuana.

Family discussion: What does it mean to say, “when I am weak, I am strong?” What ideas have changed since 1993?

If you like this, try: “But I’m a Teenager” and the upcoming “Boy Erased”

 

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