Home Again

Posted on September 7, 2017 at 5:17 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic and sexual material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, marijuana, discussion of antidepressant medication
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, scuffle
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017
Copyright 2017 Open Road

Producer/director/writer Nancy Meyers has the formula on lockdown: Take one Oscar-winning performer, preferably of a certain age (Diane Keaton, Anne Hathaway, Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet). Create a setting of lush, heavenly comfort with soft pillows, gleaming surfaces, white wine, and luscious food. Add a generic title (“The Intern,” “The Holiday”). Put some overly familiar pop songs on the soundtrack and use them to hide the lack of dialogue in scenes when we should be allowed to hear what the characters are saying that is making them think differently about each other. Settle back for a story where the female character is ADORED by everyone and also very capable and pretty much right about everything.

Whether her daughter absorbed all of this by osmosis or is merely a fully-owned subsidiary of the Meyers operation, we may never know. But “Home Again,” the first film from writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is produced by her mother and follows exactly the same formula. It is, to say the least, highly unusual for a first-time writer/director to helm such a high budget, high-profile project, starring, yes, an Oscar-winner, Reese Witherspoon, as yes, a women of a certain age who lives in a spectacularly gorgeous home (Fountain in front! Guest house in back!). But Meyers is a reliable commodity, and as generous with her daughter as her ever-beneficent heroines are in the films. Remember Streep bringing out all those pies for her friends?

If there are no surprises here, one of the non-surprises is that the movie is an easy watch, combining, as Meyers films do, pleasant fantasy with aspirational settings. I know I’ll watch it again when it comes on cable, or if I have the flu or need to fold laundry.

Witherspoon is Alice, as in Wonderland, a mother of two who has moved into her late father’s house in Los Angeles because she and her music industry producer who wears leather bracelets husband Austen (Michael Sheen) have separated. Her father was a much-married, Oscar-winning screenwriter and director because apparently that is pretty much the only world she knows or the only one we can dream of.

Alice goes out with friends on her birthday and gets tipsy with three young men who have just arrived in Los Angeles after success with a short, black and white film they are hoping to turn into a feature. She and Harry (Pico Alexander) end up in bed together, though too drunk to do anything. The next morning, Alice’s mother (Candace Bergen) arrives, befriends the three young men, and invites them to stay in Alice’s guest house.

Alice is against this at first, but comes to enjoy it, as the guys help her with the house and her girls and she and Harry end up doing what they were unable to do that first night. The ultimate seduction move is, of course, fixing the hinge on her cabinet, and I don’t say that metaphorically. They all of course ADORE her and are themselves adorable. Enter Austen, wanting to assert his alpha male status and win back Alice because of course he ADORES her, too.

So, basically a high-end Hallmark movie, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

NOTE: This is the second movie in a row for Meyers with an inappropriate and borderline offensive “joke” about children who take antidepressants. What’s up with that?

Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations, drinking and drunkenness, as well as family conflicts and divorce, a child dealing with stress, and a scuffle.

Family discussion: Were you surprised by Alice’s decision? How did Harry help her understand what she needed?

If you like this, try: “The Holiday” and “It’s Complicated” — and you can glimpse writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer in her parents remake of “The Parent Trap”

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The Glass Castle

Posted on August 10, 2017 at 5:41 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, child badly burned in a cooking accident, child neglect and endangerment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 11, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017
Copyright 2017 Lionsgate

In her 1986 best-seller, Necessary Losses, author/poet Judith Viorst talks about the beliefs each of us has to give up in order to move forward. The first and in some ways the most difficult is the understanding that our parents are not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that they cannot kiss all of our hurts and troubles away forever. Some of those realizations are worse than others. Most of us, I hope, do not have to give up on the idea that our parents at least want to take care of us and that they do their best. But parents who neglect or abuse their children take away something worse than food and safety; they take a child’s senses of trust and pride.

And so “The Glass Castle,” based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, begins with Walls, a sophisticated, elegant, and successful New York journalist (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) on her way home in a cab after dinner in an expensive restaurant with her fiance and his prospective client, seeing her parents dumpster diving. They were homeless.

And so, we go back in time to see her as a very young child, telling her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) she is hungry. “Would you rather me make you some food that will be gone in an hour or finish this painting that will last forever?” It is a rhetorical question. Young Jeannette (Chandler Head) toddles over to the stove to make herself some hot dogs. But her dress catches on fire and she is badly burned.

When her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson) decides to take her out of the hospital, without doctor permission and without paying. At this point, Jeannette is still young enough to believe everything her parents tell her, like “our home goes wherever we go.” Rex, probably self-medicating for undiagnosed bipolar disorder, was immensely brilliant and charismatic. The glass castle of the title was the home he kept promising to build the family, and he spent years drawing plans for it. Rex and Rose Mary were less and less able to maintain any kind of stability at the same time that the children became more and more aware of what they were entitled to expect and unlikely to get. Instead of excitedly making plans for the castle, they began pleading with him to stop drinking. And then, when he could not, they decided to take responsibility for themselves and each other.

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton worked with Larson in the outstanding “Short Term 12,” which also had themes of abuse, damage, and resilience. He is especially good here in dealing with the challenge of three different performers, some quite young, portraying Jeannette and her siblings, maintaining consistency as they grow up, but using the cinematography to help convey the journey from their glowing memories of childhood, believing in their parents’ view of the world as beneath them, to the grittier life of deprivation and uncertainty. The spot where the glass castle was supposed to be built literally becomes a garbage dump.

What’s wisest and most significant is that the film becomes more than the story of survival. It is really only when Jeannette stops being afraid to tell the truth about herself that she is able to accept the best of what Rex and Rose Mary brought to her life. As Walls — and Viorst — might agree, necessary losses are worth the pain when they lead to the freedom that only comes from being true about and to yourself.

Parents should know that this film concerns the neglect and abuse of children, parents with substance abuse and mental illness problems. It includes smoking, drinking and drunkenness, domestic abuse, a child burned in a fire, strong language, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Jeanette decide to tell her story? What was she grateful for receiving from her parents? If there was a movie about your family, who would you like to play you?

If you like this, try: “Running with Scissors,” “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” (another real-life story with Woody Harrelson as a father with a drinking problem), and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and the book by Walls

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Despicable Me 3

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 5:33 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 4, 2017

Copyright 2017 Universal Pictures
It does not achieve the delirious delight of the first in the series, but it is better than the second. “Despicable Me 3” is meandering and uneven.

The problem with making the title character into a happily married good guy who loooves his three girls is that he is not despicable any more. He is therefore much less interesting than the actually despicable villain of the movie, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker, co-creator of “South Park”), an 80’s child star embittered because he has been forgotten. Whenever Bratt is not on screen, the film deflates. It is a cute, fun, and sweet-natured family treat, but overstuffed at just 90 minutes with too many distracting detours.

Formerly despicable Gru (Steve Carell) is now working with Lucy (Kristen Wiig) at the AVL (Anti-Villain League), and Lucy is also trying to learn how to be a mother to the three girls, serious middle-schooler Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), mischievous Edith (Dana Gaier), and sweet, unicorn-loving Agnes (Nev Scharrel).

Gru and Lucy stop Bratt from stealing the world’s largest diamond, but he gets away, and the new, very ambitious, head of the AVL (Jenny Slate) fires Gru. Lucy quits in protest. As they begin to think about finding new jobs and Agnes sells off her beloved fluffy stuffed unicorn to help out, Gru finds out for the first time that he has an identical twin brother. “Parent Trap” style, when their parents split up, they split the babies up, too. An emissary from Gru’s brother, Dru (also Carell) invites them for a visit to Freedonia, presumably the country responsible for their accents and certainly the country where the Marx Brothers created memorable mayhem in “Duck Soup.”

Dru is identical to Gru except for luxuriant blond hair. And it turns out he wants to be despicable, like their late dear old dad. The brothers go for a wild joyride in Dad’s crookmobile. Bratt has now successfully stolen the world’s biggest diamond, and so Gru tells Dru they will steal it from him. Dru thinks they will keep it, but Gru plans to return it so he and Lucy can get their jobs back.

Meanwhile, the minions are performing Gilbert & Sullivan on a TV reality show and being thrown in prison. Lucy is still not sure how to connect to the girls. Agnes thinks she can find a unicorn. And Bratt is getting ready for the ultimate revenge on the Hollywood that rejected him.

The film flags whenever Bratt is off-screen. He is an inspired creation, with lots of 80’s references for the parents and just the right touch of whiny entitlement to seem quite timely. He just about makes up for the slow patches. The snatches of the terrific Pharrell Williams score from the first film serve as a reminder that this, too, is mostly just an inferior copy, we hope, the last.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon-style peril and violence, mostly comic, crotch hit, some potty humor, and brief minion nudity.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Lucy know when to say no? What made Margo trust her? Why did Gru’s parents tell their sons they were disappointments?

If you like this, try: the other “Despicable Me” movies and “Megamind”

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The Big Sick

Posted on June 22, 2017 at 5:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references
Profanity: Strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very serious illness
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 2017
Copyright Amazon 2017

The more specific the story, the more universal. This is a very specific story. Indeed, you are unlikely ever again to see a romantic comedy with one of the pair spending half of the film in a coma. And that is not the couple’s biggest obstacle. Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), plays a character named Kumail Nanjiani in a story based on his relationship to Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan and called Emily Gardiner in the film), who is now his wife and the co-screenwriter of the smart, touching, heartfelt and very funny film. It is beautifully directed by Michael Showalter, as always unsurpassed in meticulous casting of even the smallest roles.

Real-life Nanjiani and his movie alter ego are Pakistani immigrants from traditional families. Every time he visits his parents for dinner, an unmarried Pakistani woman “happens to drop in.” They have made it very clear that they expect him to marry a woman who is Pakistani and Muslim. Gordon is neither; she is white and from North Carolina. Just after they break up because he could not say that they could have a future together, she suddenly becomes critically ill and is placed in a medically induced coma.  He gets the call when she is hospitalized and has to be the one to call her parents. He meets them for the first time in the hospital waiting room, where they are understandably frosty (he broke their daughter’s heart) and preoccupied (she’s in a coma).

They would rather that he not be there. And his parents find out that he has not been honest with them and they tell him they cannot accept his feelings for Emily. So, in the second half of the movie there is another kind of love story, about the love between parents and their children and the partners their children choose.

It is also a story about a man learning to be honest with himself about who he is and what he wants. What lifts this out of the recent glut of arrested development movies is its compassion for all parties (the film nicely acknowledges that Nanjiani’s brother has a very successful and satisfying marriage arranged the traditional way and presents as one of the candidates a woman so seemingly perfect for him that we almost root for her) and Nanjiani’s thoughtful, self-deprecating but confident performance. The best stand-up comics mine their own lives for material, with observations that make us see our own lives, and especially our follies and irrationalities, in sharper relief — that’s relief in both senses of the word.

Best of all, the movie itself is proof that they lived happily ever after.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, family conflict, and very serious illness.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Kumail tell Emily about his family’s concerns? How should you decide what traditions to keep and which ones to leave behind?

If you like this, try: “Ruby Sparks” (also with Kazan, who wrote the screenplay) and “50-50” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, also based on a true story

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