Meet Cute

Posted on September 21, 2022 at 7:59 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bar, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, attempted suicide and suicidal ideation
Diversity Issues: BIPOC characters used solely as guides for white characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 21, 2022

Copyright 2022 Peacock
As anyone who has seen “The Holiday” knows, movies love the “meet cute.” In “The Holiday,” Eli Wallach plays a screenwriter from the 1940s who tells Kate Winslet that a “meet cute” is where there is something awwww-some about the way the couple we’ll be rooting for first see each other. The example he gives is a man and woman meeting at a store when he is trying to buy just the bottom half of a pair of pajamas and she is trying to buy just the top half. That’s a real movie, by the way. It has a cute title, too: “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.”

The term takes on extra dimension in this new rom-com, a time-traveling dimension. We may think that Sheila (Kaley Cuoco) and Gary (Pete Davidson) are meeting for the first time at a sports bar and that it is a charming coincidence or maybe a hint that they were meant to be together when they order the same cocktail, an old fashioned. But there are hints about what Shiela will reveal. It is the first time for Gary, but not for Sheila. She has been using a time machine in the back of a nail salon that looks like tanning bed to repeat the same night for months so she can make it perfect.

She has also been going back in time to tweak some of Gary’s earlier experiences to make him a little more perfect, too. Both Gary and Sheila had painful childhoods. She thinks if she can eliminate some of the trauma he experienced, he will be happier and..better. Apparently no one ever explained the Butterfly Effect to her. You can’t just tweak experiences and expect people to be the same. Pain is part of what makes us who we are.

This is a high-concept movie that delivers a satisfying level of insight beyond the will they/won’t they of the romance. It is likely that anyone who has ever been in a close relationship, romantic, familial, or friendship, has wondered if the other party might not be easier or wished to be able to fix something that hurt a loved one long ago.

Cuoco has already shown herself to be an actress of range far beyond her excellent work in sit-coms. Davidson was a less likely choice as he pretty much always plays himself, quite literally in his only previous lead role. They are both quite good here, as Cuoco becomes more and more honest about what is going on and about her own struggles and Davidson shows us how small changes in his past would have produced a more confident, less empathetic version.

There are some odd choices here, including Sheila’s murderous disposal of her alternate timeline versions and the only two characters of color being relegated to wise counselor roles to prop up the white couple. But the parts that work have great charm and Cuoco and Davidson are a pleasure to root for.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, sexual references, a light-hearted portrayal of murder and attempted murder, a less lighthearted portrayal of suicide attempt and suicidal ideation, and alcohol and drugs.

Family discussion: If you could travel through time, what would you change? Is it okay for things to be messy?

If you like this, try: “Groundhog Day,” “Palm Springs,” “About Time,” “Happy Accidents,” and “Map of a Thousand Perfect Things”

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Three Thousand Years of Longing

Posted on August 25, 2022 at 5:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Date Released to Theaters: August 26, 2022

Copyright MGM 2022
Like most children, I was fascinated by the power of wishes, and by the fairy tales where wishes never seemed to end with happily ever after. I was fond of a poem by Annette Wynne called “I Keep Three Wishes Ready,” which sensibly advised the readers to think ahead of time of what wishes we would want so we would be prepared and careful to avoid impulses and loopholes.

But, as Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a distinguished professor of stories (narrative) who specializes in fantasy, explains, there is no story about wishes that is not a cautionary tale. And thus, when she has the opportunity to use three wishes to fulfill her heart’s desire, she instead sits down with the djinn (genie) who has come out of her bottle, to hear his stories. As they sit, improbably, in white terrycloth robes in a luxurious Istanbul hotel room, he tells her of the wishes he has granted and the people who made them. And yes, they are all cautionary tales. Is wishing itself, the idea that we can escape the reality of time and the laws of physics and the limits of human power, so inevitably doomed by hubris?

Alithea tells us that the story we will hear is true, but that we will better receive it as fantasy. She also tells us that she is a solitary person, and happy to be so. That, in itself may be a fantasy, though she may not be willing to acknowledge it. I note here that the name Alithea is from the Greek word for fact or truth. And that this story is based on The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, the title story in a book of fairy tales for adults by A.S. Byatt. Alithea begins by telling us of magical-sounding wonders, humans hurtling through the air on metal wings or walking under water with webbed feet, with images reminding us of Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

On her way to the conference, Alithea sees, or thinks she sees, a small, possibly magical person. And then, when she is on stage, she sees another mythical being. Is she jet-lagged? Is she losing her mind? Or is she opening herself to what the rest of us refuse to see?

She buys an antique glass bottle, telling the seller that it looks like it has a story. Back in her hotel room, she begins to clean it with her electric toothbrush. The stopper falls out, smoke appears, and a giant hand reaches into the bathroom. It is a djinn (Idris Elba), and he has been inside the bottle for a very long time. Alithea would rather hear his stories than make a wish.

George Miller, the visionary writer/director behind the Mad Max and Babe movies, has a gift for wonder. Somewhere between the dystopian world of Fury Road and the endearing charm of “That’ll do, pig,” is this film, with striking, gorgeous images and swoon-worthy stories of passion — romantic, ambitious, angry, jealous, lustful passions.

The movie goes back and forth between the hotel room conversation and the stories of the wishes the djinn has granted, his repeated returns to confinement and how his adventures have forms his view of humanity, The djinn needs Alithea to make three heartfelt, personal wishes to gain his freedom. She insists that she has no wishes and certainly no wish to become ensnared as those who have tried to gain without effort.

The stories are dark at times, but always gorgeously filmed and resonant. And the end is surprisingly tender, perhaps reflecting the one wish all people share if we are brave enough to admit it.

Parents should know that this film has nudity and sexual references and situations, drinking and drunkenness, and violence, some grisly.

Family discussion: What would you wish? What is your favorite fairy tale and why?

If you like this, try: the book by A.S. Byatt, “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm”

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The Sea Beast

Posted on July 7, 2022 at 4:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scenes in pub, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and action, references to sad deaths and injuries
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 8, 2022

Copyright Netflix 2022
The Sea Beast” is a rollicking yarn, stunningly designed and dynamically animated, with superbly cinematic editing, pacing, and framing, appealing characters, and a thoughtful conclusion. Watch it on the biggest screen you have.

It takes place in a fantasy world somewhere between “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Moby Dick.” The King and Queen have placed a bounty on sea monsters, enormous creatures that seem to be part whale, part octopus, part shark, and all scary. The kingdom’s most admired heroes are the hunters who kill the beasts and bring back proof to present to the royals.

Their adventures are legends. They and their fans believe that “Every hunter dies a great death because every hunter lives a great life!” A feisty young girl named Maisie Bramble (Zaris-Angel Hator) regales the other children at the orphanage by reading them exciting stories from old books (with engraving-style images evoking the classic era of illustration). She is determined to follow in the tradition of her parents, who died heroically on a ship called The Monarch. It is called The Inevitable, led by Captain Crow (Jared Harris), with his fearless second-in-command, Jacob (Karl Urban)

When Crow presents their latest trophy to the King and Queen, they are told their services are no longer required. The Navy will be taking over hunting duties. But Jacob persuades the King and Queen to give them one last chance. If they cannot kill the most feared beast of all, the Red Bluster, their ship will be decommissioned and they will no longer be able to pursue the sea beast, the central focus of their identity.

Maisie stows away on the Inevitable. She is not welcome. Jacob says, “The monsters I can handle. But that one will be the death of me.” Characters who are initially antagonistic will learn to understand and appreciate each other.

I liked “The Sea Beast” a lot and was never less than enthralled by the world it created. The animation and design are stunning, though there are a few disconnects in style. The ultra-reality of the water the ships are sailing on is so tactile you almost reach for a towel. The intricacy of the literally hundreds of ropes in the boat riggings are almost unfathomably complicated as they swing independently and get pulled, yanked, and unraveled. The kingdom and castle are brilliantly designed, both real and enchanting, with nautical touches emphasizing the connection to the water. The sense of space is exceptional, especially in the very dynamic action scenes. Jacob and the other hunters climb the masts as the boat is rocked by the waves and the monsters and every bit of it feels completely real. The movement of the human characters is not always as authentic and there is a character Maisie befriends who could be from a different, more stylized world.

“The Sea Beast,” like “Encanto” and “Frozen 2,” admirably grapples with themes of generational trauma and the stories we tell ourselves. When Jacob reads the book that has meant everything to Maisie, he is surprised to find the narrative inconsistent with his own experiences, amped up and one-sided and with characters saying “yar” much more often than happened in real life. It’s an ambitious film that almost completely lives up to its ambitions.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and action-style fantasy violence with characters injured and references to sad deaths. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: How do you know whether to believe what you read or hear? Do you agree with the code? How did the characters decide who to trust? What do we learn from the name of the ship?

If you like this, try: “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “How to Train Your Dragon”

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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:27 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening images, action, intense sequences of violence, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language, s-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugged drinks
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, scary monsters, zombie, disturbing and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 6, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
The year of the multi-verses continues with the latest Marvel entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by master of horror Sam Raimi (and with a special cameo by Raimi’s favorite actor, Bruce Campbell). As the MCU continues to evolve and expand, this movie builds not just on all of the Marvel movies that have come before. There are references to Thanos turning half the population to dust and to the most recent Spider-Man movie (where Strange played a key role). It also helps a lot to have seen the television series “Wandavision,” with Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, a sometime Avenger with, even by Avenger standards, extraordinary powers. She can create almost anything and in that series, her response to the tragic loss of her love, Vision, was to create an entire world, in part inspired by the videos of American television series she saw as a child in fictional Communist Bloc country Sokovia, where she and Vision lived in sit-com suburbia.

It begins in medias res, a battle with a very big monster who seems to be made of electrified spaghetti. There is a teenage girl and a choice, something that would destroy her but save the world, at least until the next monster. Doctor Strange, the famously hyper-rational, often arrogant surgeon-turned sorcerer with the greying temples and magical cloak, has to decide. What will he do? What should he do?

He makes a choice and then he wakes up. It was a dream. Or maybe it was not. He will learn that it was a peak into the multiverse, the parallel versions of our world we got a glimpse of in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when two other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) and a handful of their villains joined together in our world. There is a way to physically enter the other verses and there is a way to “dream-walk,” to inhabit another verse’s version of you and substitute your thoughts and emotions. And that teenager, America Chavez (a terrifically natural Xochitl Gomez of “The Babysitter’s Club”) shows up with the key to some of that verse-hopping.

Strange seeks out Wanda to ask for her help. They walk through her peaceful grove of apple blossoms and he tells her they smell “real.” She assures him they are, that she is done with world-building. The meaning of “real” is a theme of the film as the different versions of the characters in the multi-verses present different ideas of reality, including free food and a verse where everyone is paint, plus some surprising switches in roles, personalities, hair color and style (Strange with a ponytail?), and destinies. And there are monsters, including a very cool one that looks like a gigantic corrugated octopus with a head that’s one enormous eyeball, like a spider-y band member from The Residents.

That’s as spoiler-y as I want to get. So I will stick to some general comments. Cumberbatch makes Strange vivid, layered, even a little bit vulnerable, and the interactions with the woman he loves, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and America have a nice symmetry that helps us see Strange work through his options, both for fighting the villain and for moving forward in his own life. The visual design is wonderfully imaginative, each verse filled with enthralling details. The action scenes are well staged, Raimi brings a tingly horror twinge to the mood, and Danny Elfman’s music is everything you want a superhero soundtrack to be. It feels good to be back in the IMAX MCU.

What keeps it under the level of the best of these films, though, is what has been an increasing issue in superhero movies. The powers are not clearly defined, so the stakes are not clearly defined. It is not enough to say it’s about the fate of the world or even the fate of America (the person, though of course the country, too). It feels like too many times that we’ve been told that someone has ultimate power, and then someone comes along with more ultimate power. (I did think it was very funny when we saw the Infinity Stones carelessly tossed into a low-level bureaucrat’s desk drawer in the “Loki” series.) I’m not saying every superhero has to be Superman, with his abilities and vulnerability clearly defined. But this film’s search for two artifacts as the keys to resolving the conflict are a distraction from the level of mythic existential conflict this movie tries for. It is a particularly weak moment when Strange, whose power comes from intensive training, resorts to the old “just figure out how to use your power in the next nano-second.” The special effects are state-of-the-art but there’s only so much they can do with characters who just shoot electricity at each other.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this is at the upper edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (s-words) and extensive comic book/fantasy peril and violence with some disturbing and graphic images, including a disintegrating zombie. Characters are drugged.

Family discussion: Is it ever right to sacrifice one person to save many? (Look up “The Trolly Problem.”) What does it mean to always want to be the one holding the knife?

If you like this, try: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “Another Earth”

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Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Posted on April 14, 2022 at 8:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action/violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril/action/violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 15, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2022
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” comes from the world of Harry Potter, so it is about magic. But it is also about that most human of connections: brothers. It’s also about chiseled cheekbones; this is a movie that even by movie-star measures has an exceptional assortment of beautifully sculpted faces. Contrary to the title, it is not so much about Dumbledore’s secrets as it is about his efforts to stop someone he once loved from destroying both the magic and human worlds. And in doing so, it includes some political commentary that may seem pointed given its depiction of corruption, nativism, and the appeal of an autocratic leader. It relies on a level of knowledge about the Harry Potter cinematic universe that does not make this two and a half-hour movie easy for viewers who are not as familiar with the characters.

We got a glimpse of Dumbledore’s backstory in the last volume of the Harry Potter series, so we know that when he was a young man, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) was in love with Gellert Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen), and that during that time they created one of the wizarding world’s most powerful charms that protects each of them from being harmed by the other.

But as we learn in the opening scene, as the two wizards meet again after distance in time and in life choices. Dumbledore is now a teacher at Hogwarts, devoted to justice and decency. Grindewald has become an agent of chaos who wants to destroy the structures of both the wizard and non-wizard muggle worlds. “With or without you,” Grindewald says, “I will burn down their world and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

Dumbledore has to find a way to prevent that despite the obstacle of the charm that binds them and Grindewald’s ability to see the future, thanks to a rare creature stolen just after birth by Grindewald’s henchpeople. But they don’t know that there was a twin, rescued by magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne).

And so, they have to find a way to proceed that cannot be traced by Grindewald, whose coterie includes mind-reader Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) the love of muggle friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). It also includes ailing Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), severely traumatized by being told his was abandoned by his birth parents and by the virulently anti-magic woman who raised him.

Credence is the son of Dumbledore’s bitter, estranged brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle). There is another tragic loss that divides the brothers as well. Newt is helped by his brother Theseus (Callum Turner, a perfect choice for a fraternal resemblance). Another member of Dumbledore’s group is Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), a brother motivated by the loss of his sister, but willing too relinquish his memories of her to take on a dangerous role.

Yes, it is all very complicated. This is not for the kind of audience who is new to the world of Harry Potter. This is for the kind of audience who will be delighted to glimpse a young Minerva McGonagall and will get the joke about Slytherin. Those not already invested in Queenie, Jacob, and Credence will have some catching up to do.

The production design by Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont and costumes by Colleen Atwood are never less than spectacular. Despite the best efforts of the cast, the look of the film does better in telling they story than the screenplay.

Parents should know that this movie has extensive fantasy peril and violence including some scary creatures. There is some social drinking and some verbal harassment.

Family discussion: Why did Dumbledore and Grindewald take such different paths? Why did so many wizards and witches support Grindewald? Why did Dumbledore turn down the position?

If you like this, try: the other Harry Potter world books and movies

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