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13 the Musical

Posted on August 12, 2022 at 12:01 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Nudity/ Sex: Kissing
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 12, 2022

Copyright 2022 Netflix
There’s lyric in a song in the lively and tuneful “13 the Musical” that the main character and his mother sing together that pretty much sums up the most stressful parts of life. And there’s nothing more stressful in life than middle school. The mother and son sing ruefully, “It would be funny if it didn’t suck.”

Evan Goldman (a terrific Eli Golden) is studying for his upcoming bar mitzvah, or, as he says, “the Super Bowl of Judaism.” Like many b’nai mitzvot, he is more focused on the party than the significance of being called to read from the Torah and being recognized as an adult. He believes the party will establish his status, either cool or not.

Evan’s parents have just split up, and he and his mother (Debra Messing) are leaving New York to move in with his grandmother (Rhea Perlman) in a very small town in Indiana. There is no synagogue; his New York rabbi (a warm, wise, and witty Josh Peck) will fly in to conduct the service in a church. Evan faces all the pressure of starting a new school in 8th grade multiplied by the pressure of figuring out who the cool kids are and how to make sure they come to his party. This leads him to make a lot of mistakes, hurting the feelings of the not-cool but loyal friends he abandons for the popular crowd, and then digging himself in deeper when he betrays the new friends, too.

In other words, it’s middle school. Actually, it’s middle school with terrific musical numbers. The 2012 Broadway show was entirely performed by kids, even the musicians. Ariana Grande was in the cast. This version smooths out some of the storyline, making it more family-friendly and a bit sweeter. Messing and Perlman are welcome additions, but the focus is still very much on the 8th graders and their efforts to begin to navigate relationships, friend and romantic. Given the heightened emotion of that age, this film is reassuringly low stakes. A couple wants to have a first kiss. A jealous third party wants to make sure it does not happen. Evan is in the middle because either way he will not be able to have the party he wants. Kids make some poor choices but they learn to do better, starting with an apology.

A lot of the film is the energetic, witty musical numbers from writer/composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”), energetically choreographed by Jamal Sims. Every one of the young performers is a triple threat, acting, singing, and dancing, with songs set at cheerleader practice and on the football field bleachers. The storyline lightly but sincerely and authentically addresses the real issues of adolescence but it is seeing real-life kids singing and dancing with such jubilant energy and showing the skill and hard work they have devoted to the performance that are the greatest reassurance that adolescence can be survived and triumphed over.

Parents should know that this movie includes a painful divorce and parent-child estrangement and discussion of kissing.

Family discussion: How does Evan help his friends solve their problems? Why was it hard for Brett to tell Lucy he did not like the way she was treating him? Why did Archie go along with Evan’s plan?

If you like this, try: “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger,” “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” and “Better Nate Than Ever”

Luck

Posted on August 4, 2022 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Nudity/ Sex: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and slapstick
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 29, 2022

Copyright 2022 AppleTV+
Writer Carolyn See likes to say that what’s bad for you is good for you. That’s not necessarily because what is difficult or painful is often a good lesson in humility, resilience, or a path to a better outcome than you could have imagined, all of which is true, but because bad is where the good stories are. “Luck” is a vibrant animated Alice in Wonderland-style story about an 18-year old named Sam who follows a black cat to the lands of good and bad luck and learns neither is really what she thought.

Sam (sweet-voiced Eva Noblezada) has aged out of the orphanage where she has been her whole life. She feels unlucky in big ways — never having found a “forever family” and in small ways, toast falls jelly-side down, lose your keys down the grate annoyances. “You can come back Friday for visiting hours,” a not-unsympathetic staff member tells her. Sam is very close to a little girl named Hazel (Adelynn Spoon) and wants a forever family for her even more than she wants one for herself. Hazel has a box full of good luck charms, everything but a space left for a lucky penny.

“Will you be checking in on me weekly?” Sam asks as the social worker drops her at her new apartment. “Someone from the agency will check in with you next month. Otherwise you are on your own.”

Oversleeping, stuck bathroom door, and the toast falling jelly side down and a flat tire on her bicycle notwithstanding, Sam makes it to her new job on time. “Take that, universe!” Her first day on the job involves a lot of chaos but her kind-hearted boss, Marv, assigns her to shopping cart patrol. “You’ll have better luck tomorrow.”

Sam is determined too get some good luck for Hazel. So when the black cat she shares her panini with leaves a special penny behind, she grabs it. And it is lucky! The toast lands right side up and the first two socks she takes out of the drawer match! But she loses the penny. When she sees the cat again and learns that he can talk, she follows him through a portal down to the Land of Luck.

The story gets overly complicated and at times is more video game than story, but Sam’s endearing optimism and kindness and the beautifully imagined different environments and appealing characters keep it from getting bogged down.

Parents should know that this film concerns children without parents. There is some mild fantasy peril.

Family discussion: Is there a time you have felt lucky? Or unlucky? Why are people better at seeing their bad luck than their good luck? Was there a time when something you thought was bad luck turned out to be good for you?

if you like this, try: the Garth Brooks song “Unanswered Prayers” and “Alice in Wonderland”

Thirteen Lives

Posted on August 4, 2022 at 5:17 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and unsettling images
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/ Sex: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and tense rescue operations, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Race and economic/nationality status issues
Date Released to Theaters: August 5, 2022

Copyright Imagine 2022
Twelve young boys. One coach. Seventeen days trapped. More than 5000 rescue workers from many countries. The eyes of the world were on Thailand’s Tham Luang cave in June and July of 2018 as a soccer team exploring a cave they knew well were trapped by a sudden early monsoon that flooded it before they could get out. One more number: two and a half miles. That is how far they were from the entrance, and for almost two weeks the cave was so impenetrable that no one knew if any of them were still alive.

“Rescue” is a fine documentary about the courage and dedication of the rescuers, especially the British and Australian volunteer race rescue divers who came up with an idea so dangerous and crazy it could only become an option when every other possibility was out of the question. Ron Howard’s feature film has excellent performances from Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, and Joel Edgerton as the divers and skillful use of the camera to put us inside the narrow, claustrophobic passages of the cave with no visibility and terrifyingly swift currents. Like his best film which also plays into triskaidekaphobian fears, “Apollo 13,” this is a tick-tock tension movie, with smart people trying to solve dire, unprecedented problems under excruciating time pressure.

It is June 2018. The boys are playing soccer and talking about a SpongeBob birthday cake at an upcoming party. They ride their bicycles to the cave, with the “Sleeping Princess” shrine at the entrance. There should be plenty of time before monsoon season closes the cave until the fall. But there is not. A drenching rainstorm cuts off the exit and slowly, as the parents come looking for the boys, it is clear they are trapped inside.

The Thai Navy SEALS arrive, well-trained and courageous. But rescuing people from an ocean is very different from the highly specialized rescues of the volunteer cave divers. It turns out there is a small, dedicated, endlessly skillful and endlessly courageous group of people who are cave diving rescuers, including Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), and joining later, Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton).

Given how much of the story is under murky water in a dark cavern filled with sharp points and tiny, twisty passages, Howard does a very good job of keeping us on top what is going on, how much time has passed, and how far we are from the tiny, precarious shelf where the boys and their coach are perched. For those who are not familiar with the details (though likely everyone is aware of the miraculous outcome) there are some dramatic twists and surprises to accompany the understated but immensely powerful story of the rescue divers. Americans will enjoy the classically British understatement that only underscores the breathtaking heroics of the story and the modesty and gratitude of the boys, the coach, and their families. The unquenchable hope, the remarkable resilience, and the cooperation of all involved, including the farmers who agreed to have their year’s crops wiped out so that water could be diverted from the cave are a story of uplift and the best that humanity has to offer.

Parents should know that this is a tense depiction of a dire real-life rescue involving children with some very high-risk choices. Characters are injured and killed and there is some strong language.

Family discussion: How did the group make the decision to take such a high-risk option? What were the biggest obstacles to the rescue other than the physical challenge of the water in the cave? What circumstances would make you fly halfway around the world to help people you’ve never met?

If you like this, try: the National Geographic documentary “The Rescue” and Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13”

Bullet Train

Posted on August 2, 2022 at 9:57 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Brief explicit sex
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very graphic peril and violence with spurting blood and many murders, guns, knives, poison, fire, crash, snake
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 5, 2022

Copyright 2022 Sony
The Japanese bullet train goes 200 miles per hour. Its namesake movie goes even faster. On the train is a briefcase stuffed with millions of dollars and a passenger list that includes an assortment of thieves and assassins and the kidnapped son of a crime kingpin called White Death. Action fans will understand that the over-the-top violence is exaggerated as an R-rated version of Looney Tunes, expertly crafted and often hilarious.

Brad Pitt is sensational as an all-purposes soldier of fortune trying to find something simpler and less violent than his previous jobs. His handler, Maria, tells him this is just the job for him. All he has to do is get on the train, grab the briefcase, and get off. She gives him the code name Ladybug. This is either to cheer him up or add some snark because he insists he is unlucky (as he steps into a puddle) and in Japan the ladybug is a symbol of good luck. Or both. Either way, that is the only name we know for him, an emotionally exhausted man described by another character as looking like every homeless white guy, trying to do better without having decided what better means.

At the train station he opens a locker to pick up the equipment Maria has left for him, but he decides to leave the gun behind. And he boards the train, reciting therapeutic mantras to remind himself to stay calm, determined to “put peace into the world” while all he has too do is steal a briefcase. The trick, though, is that it already belongs to someone to whom it is also valuable, and several other people who are equally experienced in smash and grab, emphasis on the smash, would also like to have it, too. There are assassins from all over, a veritable It’s a Small World of assassins.

I really want to avoid spoilers here, so I will not disclose the superstars who show up in small, funny cameos (you will probably recognize the voice of the Oscar-winner on the other side of the phone calls with Ladybug), the actor we don’t see without a mask until the last act, or some of the funniest twists. I’ll just say that stuntman-turned director David Leitch (“John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde”) is as good as it gets in fight scenes and these are a blast, and that there are some well-chosen needle drop songs on the soundtrack. The bullet train setting is also a lot of fun, with a quiet car, a car for families with young children, and a bar car, and stops of only one minute at each station.

I will, however, take a moment to discuss Brad Pitt, who shows once again that he never brings less than the best to every role. No one is better at precisely calibrating his own movie star charisma and here he plays off of it to hilarious effect. The acting in the stunt scenes is as important as the punches. As we have seen in Tarantino and some other films, countering shocking, graphic, brutality with transgressive but workmanlike casualness can be very funny. The entire cast is excellent, including Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as “the twins,” the assassins delivering (or trying to) the White Death’s son (Logan Lerman channeling Jared Leto) and the briefcase full of ransom money, Bad Bunny as a Mexican drug cartel operative, and Hiroyuki Sanada, Zazie Beetz as characters I won’t spoil.

Buckle up, everyone. This is what they’re talking about when they use the term “wild ride.”

Parents should know that this movie is non-stop action with guns, knives, poison, fire, a deadly snake, crashes, and many brutal and grisly deaths and disturbing and graphic images. A child is badly injured (but survives). Characters are hired assassins and crime kingpins and their henchmen. They use very strong language. There is a brief scene of nudity and sex.

Family discussion: Who are we rooting for in this story and how can you tell? What do you think of the Thomas the Tank Engine approach to classifying humanity? Why don’t we ever learn their real names?

If you like this, try: the book by Kotaro Isaka, the “John Wick” series, “Kill Bill,” “Boss Mode,” and “Shoot ’em Up” You might also enjoy a less violent film involving a crime and a train, “$” with Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn.