Instant Family

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tension and some peril and accidents, brief disturbing images of injuries, family confrontations, issues of foster care
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018

Copyright 2018 Paramount Pictures
An adoptive mom explained to me once that most couples who adopt have “a drag-er and a drag-ee.” That can be the essence of a good partnership; parenting in any form is one of life’s greatest leaps into the unknown and it makes sense to talk it out thoroughly while understanding that no one can ever understand the terror, the exhaustion, the way children “push buttons you didn’t know you had,” and of course the unparalleled joy of being a parent until you get there, by which time you are probably too terrified, exhausted, and, yes, filled with joy to understand it even then. That is why we gravitate to movies like “Instant Family.” They give us a chance to think about how much our families mean to us.

“Instant Family,” based in part on the real-life story of writer-director Sean Anders, tells us everything we need to know about Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) in the first scene, as they race through a decrepit mess of a house thrilled at the possibilities only they can see. Their optimistic vision and instinctive teamwork will be needed when a half joking remark about adopting an older child to catch yup with their contemporaries leads Ellie to start looking at websites about foster parenting and then to being the drag-er to Pete’s drag-ee. “This is what we do! We see potential in things and fix them up!” But of course, as someone said, adults do not make children; children make adults. The parents get some fixing up, too.

After some foster parent training, they go to a “foster fair,” to meet some of the children who are available. They were not planning to foster a teen, but they are drawn to a remarkably self-possessed girl named Lizzy (Isabela Moner) (and a bit intimidated by her, too). The social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer) tell them she has two younger siblings. They are daunted by the idea of going from zero kids to three all at once, but understand the importance of keeping them together and cannot resist their adorable photos. The next thing they know, they are calling out, “Kids! Dinner is ready!” and wondering whether it will be reassuring or intrusive to kiss them goodnight.

You can tell Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) has been through it and has spent time with other foster families. The film has well-chosen details of the two steps forward-one step back relationship with the children, especially Lizzie, who is used to taking care of her brother and sister herself and still hopes that their mother will come for them. It is frank about the issues of fostering children of different ethnicities, the ambivalent feelings about the possibility of the biological mother returning, and the moments when Pete and Ellie wonder if they’ve done the right thing, and if not loving the children immediately makes them horrible people. Ellie says at one point that she feels like she is babysitting someone else’s kids. And she’s right. They don’t become hers because a social worker says so or because a judge says so. They become hers because she does not give up. And because she fights for Lizzie. And because she brushes Lizzy’s hair so gently and lovingly.

Wahlberg and Byrne are perfectly cast and the tone and pacing are exactly right for depicting family life, where tears are mixed with laughter and laughter is mixed with tears. They are hilariously funny and also touching and moving. There’s great support from Notaro and Spencer and from Margo Martindale as a feisty grandmother, and Moner is excellent as Lizzy whether she’s being defiant, manipulative, protective, or vulnerable. This story could have been cloying or it could have been soap opera. But Anders and his cast make it into a genuinely heartwarming experience that makes us wish we could be part of their family, too.

Parents should know that this is a warm-hearted comedy that is frank about some of the issues presented in foster parenting and adoption including trauma and neglect, drug abuse, predatory behavior and sexting, with some strong language.

Family discussion: What were the biggest challenges Pete and Ellie faced and how well did they deal with them? What is the best way to help kids in the foster program?

If you like this movie, try: “Room for One More” with Cary Grant and his then-wife Betsy Drake

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Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Posted on October 12, 2018 at 1:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style fantasy/mild horror peril and violence, creepy creatures. boo-scares
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2018

Copyright 2018 Columbia
My review of Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is on rogerebert.com.

The first “Goosebumps” movie was a lot of fun, with Jack Black playing real-life author R.L. Stine, whose hundreds of spooky-fun books for tweens have sold hundred of millions of copies. This sequel, with only a brief appearance by Black, is blander, with lower-wattage talent on and behind the screen. But the special effects are still top-notch and it is a pleasant little scare-fest for the Halloween season.

Parents should know that this film includes extended spooky-scary content with scary monsters, ghosts, witches, boo-scares, peril, action/cartoon-style peril and violence, some potty humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which is the scariest monster in the movie? Why do people like scary movies?

If you like this, try: “Monster House” and “Paranorman” and the Goosebumps books and first film

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Night School

Posted on September 27, 2018 at 5:58 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence
Profanity: Very strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 28, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
Maybe this movie might slide past more easily in the summer, when audiences are more susceptible to silly comedies. But it is possible even summer audiences would find this a disappointingly lesser work from two of the most unquenchably funny people in movies, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. It’s a warning sign when the opening credits show six different writers in a tangle of “ands” and “&s,.” The seams between the obvious rewrites trip over each other, interrupting the flow of the storyline and the build-up of the comedy.

The premise is in the title and the best jokes are all in the trailer. Kevin Hart plays Teddy, a high school dropout who is happy and successful, happy because he has a beautiful, accomplished, loving girlfriend (the exquisitely lovely Megalyn Echikunwoke as Lisa), but not as successful as she thinks he is because he does not want her to know that he never finished high school and is living paycheck to paycheck. His best friend Marv (Ben Schwartz) warns him that he cannot afford his duplex, Porsche, or the engagement ring he wants to give Lisa, but Teddy’s boss has promised to give him the store when he retires, and so he thinks it will all work out.

Of course, all of that has to fall apart for the story to happen, but it takes too long to get to the reason we are there — night school, so Teddy can get his GED and go to work for Marv as a financial analyst(!). And so we can see the scenes with Hart and Haddish, playing his teacher, Carrie. The early scenes drag, especially when Teddy tries to get out of paying an expensive restaurant bill by sticking his hand down his pants so he can put some hair into the food and claim it came that way from the kitchen. And then Teddy has to accidentally burn down the store, another pointless, overlong digression.

And then we get to the GED program, at the very high school that was so traumatic for Teddy, now run by his high school nemesis, Stewart (a woefully underused Taran Killam), who has a poster of “Lean on Me” behind his desk and carries a Joe Clark-style baseball bat to terrorize the students.

The night school instructor is Carrie (Haddish), a straight-talking, hard-working teacher who demands the best from students. She has no patience for the work-arounds Teddy has come up with to hide what she recognizes as learning disabilities. But she has all the patience it takes to find a way for him to succeed.

The night school classmates are lazily sketched out, relying on our familiarity with the types we have seen in so many movie classrooms and the talent of the supporting cast, including Rob Riggle playing the blustery part he usually plays, Mary Lynn Rajskub in another mousy role, and Al Madrigal as the waiter Teddy got fired in the restaurant incident. The movie heaves from one set-up to the next, and we get the sense that “Kevin does something funny” is pretty much all they had in mind for most of them. Ultimately, even that fails and they have to resort to the desperation go-to, a dance sequence. To Outkast’s “Hey-Ya.” Come on. Okay, that part made me smile, but I was not proud of myself for it.

We don’t need the movie to make sense or ring true, but we do need it not to fight with us. In other words, the events and the comedy have to bring the movie forward. It may be funny to see Haddish deliver a powerhouse punch to Hart in full boxing gear (followed by further punches as he gets more and more protective covering), but it undermines everything we have been told about her character’s dedication and decency and come on, this is how you “cure” ADD and dyslexia? Scenes like the whole class getting together to steal the answers to a test go on much too long for too little payoff. I’m a fan of director Malcolm Lee, whose films generally have an expert balance of heart and humor. This one, sorry to say, does not make the grade.

Parents should know that this film includes near-R-level language and crude humor, sexual references, comic peril and violence, and drug references.

Family discussion: How did understanding that he had learning disabilities change Teddy’s outlook? Why didn’t he tell Lisa the truth sooner?

If you like this, try: “Central Intelligence” and “Girls Trip”

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The Happytime Murders

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 5:35 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material)
Profanity: Very strong, crude, and offensive language
Date Released to Theaters: December 3, 2018
Copyright STX Films 2018

A couple of minutes into “The Happytime Murders,” an adorable Muppet-like puppet says the f-word. If that strikes you as funny, think very carefully about whether it is funny enough for 90 minutes of pretty much the exact same joke to justify the price of a movie ticket. If you want to hear puppets swear and talk about porn, see “Avenue Q.” If you want to see a detective try to solve a murder in a show business community where entertaining non-human characters are second-class citizens, see “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” If you want a good time at the movies, do not go to see this.

It might have made a pretty good Funny or Die video. But it is not enough to sustain even a less-than 90-minute running time. It is vastly less entertaining than the behind-the-scenes credit sequence showing how some of the scenes were filmed. And it is vastly less interesting than a movie about adults trying to trash the imperishable legacy of a legendary father, as is the case here with the Henson kids making a hard-R movie with characters from the Muppet world their father created.

Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is a disgraced cop-turned private detective with a comely receptionist named Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, the movie’s highlight). A beautiful new client (Dorien Davies) asks Phil to find out who is blackmailing her. Phil investigates a possible connection in a porn shop (where a puppet cow is having her udder massaged by a puppet octopus) just as a gunman arrives and kills everyone else in the store. One of the victims was an actor on a popular television show called “The Happytime Gang,” featuring Phil’s brother and a bunch of other puppets, along with a human named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), once Phil’s girlfriend.

Phil’s former partner, Connie Edwards (co-producer Melissa McCarthy) shows up, and her lieutenant (Leslie David Baker) assigns them to work together on what turns out not to be a simple robbery but a plot to kill off all of the Happytime Gang. Phil and Connie track each one down, bickering along the way, and failing to protect any of them. This is an opportunity to show many puppets engaging in extremely depraved behavior including substance abuse and prostitution and brutal murders with bits of fluff and disembodied puppets everywhere. Fun!

What makes the Muppets magical is the vivid personalities. We don’t love Kermit and Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf and Elmo and Oscar and Big Bird and the Swedish Chef and Fozzy Bear because they are puppets. We love them because they are characters, as vivid and engaging and real as any human. The puppets here, are expertly made but bland. And so, despite all the naughty talk and truly filthy behavior, is the script. It is too lazy to even think through its premise, beyond “it’s funny to have characters usually designed for children say and do R-rated things.” A human has a transplanted puppet liver. Puppets and humans apparently have sex with each other. Puppets have puppet children and, if the puppets who have children are cousins, those children do not have the correct number of eyes. Hilarious! And on top of regular old fashioned bad taste, it has the extremely poor judgment to have a “puppet lives matter” element.

A brief pause before my conclusion to mention Maya Rudolph, who almost packs a whole movie’s worth of watchability in her irresistible performance. As Bubbles, she manages to pay tribute to and slightly parody the classic hard-boiled but soft-hearted dames who used to work for detectives like Bogart’s Marlowe and Spade. The timbre of her voice, she way she holds her shoulders, the way she walks, the way she picks a lock, the way she thanks Phil for bringing her a candy bar — each moment is a small chamber piece of exquisite choices. McCarthy is great. She’s always great. But she is not always great at picking projects, and this one, despite her crackerjack timing and remarkable focus, is a big, fluffy, dud.

Parents should know that this film includes constant extremely strong, vulgar, and crude language, very explicit sexual references and situations, drinking, smoking, drugs, violence including guns and fire, and characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: What parallels is this movie suggesting about today’s political issues? Why did the humans feel superior to the puppets?

If you like this,try: “Avenue Q”

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Juliet, Naked

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 3:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcoholism and drug abuse, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 24, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 13, 2018
Copyright 2018 Lionsgate

Nick Hornby understands passionate fans of rock music and the people who create it. His novel High Fidelity and the film starring John Cusack are classics. He also wrote About a Boy, the story of a man who, years after his father’s one novelty hit, is living off the royalties and not doing much else. It became a beloved film starring Hugh Grant and television series. He brought those two ideas together in Juliet, Naked, the story of a passionate fan and a faded rock star who are connected by the woman they both love.

Annie (Rose Byrne) cannot quite figure out how she got where she is and is even less able to figure out how to get anywhere else. When her parents died, she took over her father’s job as curator of a small history museum and raised her younger sister, who now works there with her. She has been living with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), her boyfriend of 15 years, a professor of popular culture who shows his students clips from “The Wire” and who operates a fan site for the elusive Tucker Crowe, a rock star whose disappearance has only increased the interest in his one classic album, called “Juliet” and inspired by a break-up.

Duncan receives some previously unreleased Crowe songs, the original demos of “Juliet,” “naked” because they have no studio sweetening or instruments other than Crowe’s guitar. For a fan who obsessively collects Crowe arcana, this is the ultimate treasure. Annie, irritated with him for his fixation on a musician who has not released any new music in decades, writes a bad review of the new tracks on Duncan’s fan site, calling it a cash grab, and she gets an email from Crowe himself, agreeing with her. This leads to an email correspondence, “You’ve Got Mail”-style. And then to a meeting IRL.

The movie was directed by a real-life rock star, Jesse Peretz of The Lemonheads, and he has a feel for the life of a rock star and the life of a fan. He (and Hornby) have less of a feel for Byrne’s character, and even Byrne’s endless charm and skill cannot make up for an underwritten role. Hawke does better. Crowe is so shaggily rueful about his own failings as a performer, a person, and a father that we almost forget just how irresponsible he has been. It’s a slight story, but it’s a sweet one.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, references to alcoholism and drug abuse, references to irresponsible behavior, and a medical issue.

Family discussion: What makes some people into super-dedicated fans? Was Annie right about the museum exhibit?

If you like this, try: “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity”

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