The Sun is Also a Star

Posted on May 15, 2019 at 6:15 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Accident with pedestrian injuries, family scuffle
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers Studios
A pair of teenagers who happen to meet on a day of great pressure for both of them are riding on a New York City subway train that gets stuck. The engineer comes on the speaker to tell them a story reminiscent of the Taoist parable about the farmer, the son, and the horse. Sometimes the very thing that you think is an insurmountable obstacle to what you are urgently trying to achieve turns out to lead you to something you could not have imagined, or even to save your life.

That is a theme in “The Sun is Also a Star,” along with the divide and sometimes conflict between poetry and science, the left brain and the right, what we feel and what we can prove, and the needs and dreams of the individual versus what is best for the family or the group — and who gets to decide what “best” means. And at the center of it is the thrum of issues of immigration and assimilation. It might be easy to lose sight of the love story under the weight of all of this, but the star power of lead actors Yara Shahidi (“Black-Ish” and “Grown-Ish”) and Charles Melton (“Riverdale,” “Glee”) and the deeply romantic direction of Ry Russo-Young, the romance is in every way the heart of the film.

Natasha (Shahidi) is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who are being deported following an ICE raid of the restaurant where he father works. The family moved to New York when she and her brother were young children, meaning that they are not American citizens in the family on which to base an appeal. As her parents pack up, Natasha goes to ICE to see if she can appeal their decision.

A compassionate case officer says it is too late for him to re-open the case but he gives her the card of a lawyer who might be able to help. Because he cannot see her until noon, later postponed to 4:30, she is stuck downtown, not enough time to go home, but, perhaps enough time to fall in love?

Natasha does not believe in love, or so she says. She dismisses it as romantic hogwash, just a distractingly poetic way to describe hormones. She is interested in data and science. If love cannot be measured and studied according to the strictures of the scientific method, she says, it cannot be true.

The person she says it to is Daniel (Melton), the son of Korean immigrants, who glimpses Natasha at Grand Central Station when he is on his way to a very important alumni interview for Dartmouth. He grabs her away from a careening car that has already knocked down one pedestrian and she accepts his invitation to go for coffee. He is a poet, a romantic, a believer in signs and omens. Natasha’s jacket has the same ancient Greek phrase that he had jotted down in his notebook that morning: deus ex machina. Literally, it translates to “god from the machine,” referring to the mechanical device used in Greek theater to bring the deity characters on stage. But it is a literary term meaning some extraordinary, sometimes supernatural or god-like force that suddenly changes the trajectory of a story, usually resolving it for the better.

Daniel tells Natasha he can make her believe in love. He begins with the famous 36 questions followed by a silent stare into each other’s eyes. She insists that it cannot possibly work, but as the day goes on, she cannot help but be drawn to him. As they watch a show at the Planetarium (perhaps a nod to “Rebel Without a Cause”), she reaches for his hand.

Their walk-and-talk courtship involves visits to each other’s families and some surprising, one might even say cosmic connections. Melton and Shahidi make a graceful transition from television to the big screen, with charisma and chemistry to spare. Their chemistry is almost tactile, with a deep sweetness. With all of their differences in outlook and situation, their shared bond as the children of immigrants, struggling with what they owe to the past and what they dream of for the future is so real to us that by the end we are holding our breath hoping for the magic to go on.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and crude sexual references, a car hitting a pedestrian, and a scuffle between brothers, as well as some issues of family conflict and the prospect of deportation.

Family discussion: Daniel’s father says that Daniel should do what is best for the community. What do you think is best for the community in that context? Can you fall in love by asking each other questions? Was there a time where what you thought was something going wrong turned out to be right? Can tragedy be funny?

If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise,” “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” and “Everything Everything”

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Isn’t It Romantic

Posted on February 13, 2019 at 8:28 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference
Profanity: Strong language, some bleeped but still evident
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealer, drinking to deal with stress, joke about getting drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, mugging, injury
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2019

Copyright New Line 2019
As they say, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature. Yes, romantic comedies keep relying on the same elements. All the Jessicas and Jennifers who star, all the quippy best friends, all the cute apartments and makeover montages, all the strolls through the farmers markets, looking through the mounds of fruit, coming home with grocery bags filled with bottles of wine and baguettes, the kisses in the rain, the misunderstandings, the initial antagonism that turns to love, the race to the wedding (to stop it) or to the airport (to keep that special someone from flying away), and all those bouncy pop songs on the soundtrack to make up for the absence of actual lines of dialogue. Why should we hear what people say to each other when they are falling in love when we can imagine it as we bounce along to the music and watch them stroll on the beach and ride bicycles and playfully toss soap bubbles or autumn leaves or pillows at each other?

We don’t go to see romantic comedies in spite of this repetition; we go because of it. Just like we play the same songs over and over, it is the very predictability we find so satisfying. So “Isn’t it Romantic,” starring Rebel Wilson, is as much an affectionate tribute to the romantic comedy as it is a parody of it. In the first scene, the mother (“AbFab’s Jennifer Saunders) of a young Australian girl is telling her that the movie she is watching, “Pretty Woman,” is unrealistic, like all romantic comedies, and, in fact, she says that there is no such thing as love. “In real life, girls like us can’t get that.” (If this reminds you of the “monogamy isn’t realistic” flashback of the romantic comedy “Trainwreck,” buckle up, because the call-outs of other movies are non-stop.)

Twenty-five years later, that girl has grown up to be Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is an architect in New York, cynical about romance and shy about standing up for herself at work. She has an assistant (a terrific Betty Gilpin of “Glow”) who spends all day watching romantic comedies instead of doing her job and a friend zone buddy named Josh (Wilson’s “Pitch Perfect” love interest Adam Devine). When she bangs her head after a mugging in the subway station, she wakes up in the hospital — and the world has been transformed to a romantic comedy, wisecracking gay best friend, meet cute dreamboat, her apartment quintupled in size, her neighborhood all bright colors, flower shops, and cupcakes, “as though a beauty filter had been applied to all of New York.”

At first she resists, but then she decides the best way to get back to real life is to create a happy ending, at first with a handsome millionaire who finds her “beguiling” (fellow Aussie Liam Hemsworth), and then with Josh, who by this time is caught up in his own romantic comedy with swimsuit model/yoga ambassador Isabella (Priyanka Chopra). The film manages to pay tribute to/make gentle fun of films like “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Notting Hill,” and “13 Going on 30” while folding in some female empowerment, too. It mostly escapes the failures of the silly “Scary Movie” franchises by recognizing that it is not enough to refer to something; you have to have something to say about it. At a brisk 88 minutes, “Isn’t It Romantic” manages to have something to say, and by the time the happy ending and yet another musical number it will have achieved what all good romantic comedies do — it will leave you smiling, and maybe a little bit hopeful about romance.

Parents should know that this film includes strong and crude language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, crude humor, brief nudity, drinking, a drug dealer, comic mayhem and violence and a mugging.

Family discussion: What is your favorite romantic comedy and how does this movie compare to it and comment on it? Why are romantic comedies so popular?

If you like this, try: “Notting Hill,” “27 Dresses,” and “Pitch Perfect”

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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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Book Club

Posted on May 17, 2018 at 5:11 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sex-related material throughout and for language
Profanity: Some strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 18, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 27, 2018
Copyright 2018 Paramount

Hey, people behind “Sex and the City,” you might want to call your lawyers. Maybe those of you behind “The Golden Girls,” too. “Book Club,” starring four Oscar winners from the 1970’s, is pretty much an AARP version of SATC, with four women who endlessly confide everything in each other, mostly about sex and some about romance. How does a movie with these magnificent, strong, smart stars fail the Bechdel test?

In this mix, Jane Fonda plays Samantha, I mean Vivian, the luxury hotel owner who has a lot of sex but only with men she doesn’t care about. “I can’t sleep with people I like,” she says referring to the literal act of slumber. “I gave that up in the 90’s.” Mary Steenburgen plays Charlotte, I mean Carol, happily married to a man she loves (Craig T. Nelson), but not happy about their humdrum sex life. Candice Bergen is Miranda, I mean Sharon, a judge who is long-divorced and resolutely single, living only with a cat called Ginsburg. And Diane Keaton plays a character named Diane who is somewhere between Carrie and “Golden Girls'” Rose, a sweet-natured recent widow with two devoted and over-solicitous daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton), who want her to leave her home and move in with them in Arizona.

The women have had a book club together for decades, mostly an excuse for them to get together. When Vivian hands out copies of the naughty bondage and discipline Fifty Shades of Grey novel by E.L. James, it causes all four of them to rethink their own romantic and sexual options. Vivian reconnects with the guy she almost married four decades earlier (Don Johnson, whose daughter starred in the movie version of Fifty Shades). Diane meets a very handsome man on a plane (Andy Garcia) and has to decide if she is open to a new relationship. Sharon decides to try swiping right with a little online dating and ends up having dinner with a tax lawyer (Richard Dreyfuss, every bit as charming as he was in “The Goodbye Girl“). And Carol tries to spice it up with her recently retired husband, who seems to have no interest in sex.

This provides many opportunities for the foursome to get together to discuss each other’s situations in detail. And if you think that they might omit the makeover scene with everyone weighing in on what one of them should wear on a big date and a scene of triumph over the ex’s new young love, rest assured they did not.

It is good to see these brilliant stars give it their best, which is what it takes to overcome the drippy screenplay, co-written by director Bill Holderman (with Erin Simms), and pedestrian direction. It’s like taking a Hallmark Romance Channel movie script and instead of casting the farm team (1990’s television series stars), it sends in the All-Pro heavy hitters. Or a “Love Boat” episode from the days when one segment always featured some 80-something former movie star. This group is able to carry it pretty far, especially Fonda, clearly relishing her role, and Garcia, who is able to give some grounding to a thinly written Prince Charming character. But the silly premise, Bumble product placement, clunky double entendre, unimaginative soundtrack, and Viagra humor make us long for the more reliable middle-age female empowerment fluff of Nancy Meyers.

Parents should know that this film has extensive and explicit sexual references and situations, including the visible results of a double does of Viagra, played for comedy, as well as some strong language and alcohol.

Family discussion: Why were Diane’s daughters so worried about her? Why was it hard for her to tell them no? Why was Vivian reluctant to become close to Arthur? Did the books have an impact on their choices?

If you like this, try: “The Jane Austen Book Club” and some of the earlier films of these stars like “Barefoot in the Park,” “Starting Over,” “Melvin and Howard,” and “Annie Hall”

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Fifty Shades Freed

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 6:36 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including kidnapping, punching, knife, gun, chase
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 7, 2018

Copyright 2017 Universal
“The worse sin passion can commit is to be joyless,” wrote Dorothy Sayers. And Fifty Shades Freed is Exhibit A. It’s more of an endless perfume commercial than a story, with beautiful people smooching (and more) in a series of increasingly luxurious settings and modes of transportation. Viewers may more likely to find their breath taken away by the Birkin bag Ana carries than the licking-ice-cream-off-Christian’s-chest scene, the “You own this?” about the fancy private airplane response, “We own this” more than “meet me in the Red Room of pain.”

These are people who are supposed to be exceptionally successful at their jobs who are somehow not especially committed to them or particularly good at them. Anna is a college drop-out now elevated to editor at the publishing company that happens to be owned by her new husband, but entirely on her merits, but the job itself is one of those cutesy Hallmark Christmas movie-type careers where all she has to do is congratulate her hunky author on his success and ask him gently about the next book and tell an assistant to increase the font size on a cover. More important, these are people who share a deep kink connection who are pretty, to use their term, vanilla. Anything at all interesting about the issue of the power dynamics between Ana and Christian is so soft-focus that it barely registers.

It seems Ms. James ran out of ideas about a book and a half ago. All they’ve got left is sex in this and that ultra-luxurious location (more shelter porn than porn porn here) interspersed with some very random thriller moments as a figure from the past wants to destroy the perfect prettiness of the romance. This gives us an opportunity for a chase scene on a mountain road that turns out to be, like so much in the film, foreplay, plus some not at all tense would-be thriller moments and one pretty funny joke.* The tedium is occasionally lessened by some pop song montages. The music is not that great, but it is better than the dialogue. And then, the final whack of the cinematic riding crop, the utterly unnecessary remix montage featuring highlights of the films that we were hoping to have forgotten.

*New variation of the Gothika rule: I will give away the joke to anyone who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com to save you the time and money of seeing the film.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive and explicit sexual references and situations with some BDSM activity, nudity, some strong language, alcohol, and peril and violence including kidnapping, a gun, knives, and punching.

Family discussion: Why did Ana object to Christian’s behavior in the red room on one occasion? What made each of them jealous?

If you like this, try: “9 1/2 Weeks”

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