Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted on December 14, 2021 at 12:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very sad death, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021
Date Released to DVD: April 11, 2022

Copyright Sony 2021
Spider-Man: No Way Home” is everything a comic book movie should be, filled with excitement, heart, humor, and details to delight the fans. There were audible gasps of joy and more than a few tears in the audience when I saw it, and some of them were mine.

It is tough to say much more without spoilers, but I am going to try. I recommend that you see the movie before reading the rest of the review, though, if you want the delight of all of the surprises. Then come back here and see what I have to say to find out if you agree.

It takes off where “Spider-Man: Far From Home” left us, with the public revelation that Spider-Man is high school student Peter Parker. Now, helicopters are hovering outside of the apartment Peter (Tom Holland) shares with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Blowhard J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) is a Limbaugh/O’Reilly-style media personality who calls Spider-Man a terrorist and vigilante, leading to public protests. Aunt May, Spidey’s best friend and “chair guy,” Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) are all being harassed. Almost as painful, his high school teacher has set up something of a shrine and the principal tries to reassure him by telling him he is welcome to swing through the halls or crawl on the ceiling.

Peter cannot live his life or help anyone else in this situation, so he goes to one of the other Avengers for help: Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). What he needs is a way to make everyone forget they know his secret identity. Strange agrees to help, but Peter interrupts the spell and something goes wrong.

Spoiler alert, last warning: this opens up a portal to the multi-verse, and that lets in some of the classic Spidey villains, including my all-time favorite, Doc Oct (Alfred Molina). There is also an appearance by my least favorite Spider-Man villain, but this film gives him a vastly better role. This leads to some show-stopping confrontations, staged with exceptional dynamism, pacing, and even wit. There are some very funny moments when the super-villains refer to each other as “a brilliant scientist” and when they compare notes. “You fell into something? I fell into something!”

There are more delicious meta-moments, but it is all anchored by real emotion. Peter is a teenager, so the anguish of college applications and the drama of first love are as wrenching as the battles with supervillains to save the planet. Just as the previous entry upended the usual structure of the superhero/supervillain conflict, this one remixes it again, raising the fundamental question about what it is we want or should want from those battles, but cleverly letting us have it both ways. Peter’s mentor, Tony Stark, is gone, and so the person he seeks help from is Dr. Strange. Like Stark, he is arrogant and impatient but not unmoved by Peter and he provides some critical (in both senses of the word) direction, ordering Peter, Ned, and MJ to “Scooby-Doo this s**t.” If it glosses quickly over the actual problem-solving (requiring chemical stuff and mechanical stuff and computer stuff) it’s fine because we would not want to watch that for too long when there are action scenes ahead and they are bangers.

Peter gets some guidance and support from an unexpected source that adds to the humor and to the emotional heft of the story, touching on love, loss, chance, and regret and, as they say in “The Good Place,” what we owe each other. What Marvel/Sony/Columbia owes the audience is a terrific comic book movie, and they have delivered.

NOTE: Stay all the way through the credits for TWO extra scenes.

Parents should know that this film features extended superhero/fantasy peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there is a very sad death and discussion of loss and regret. There is some strong language and a kiss.

Family discussion: Was Aunt May right about second chances? What was the most important thing Peter learned from his counterparts?

If you like this, try: the entire Spidey-verse of movies, including the three each for Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield and the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

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Moxie

Posted on March 2, 2021 at 12:42 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, strong language, and some teen drinking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: References to rape, predatory behavior
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 3, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
“It’s so nice not to be on anyone’s radar,” Vivian (Hadley Robinson) says to her BFF Claudia (Lauren Tsai). It’s the first day of school and we might detect just a hint of wistfulness in her voice. Everyone is waiting for The Ranking, an annual list of female students selected based on how attractive they are. Some are selected based on how attractive individual body parts are. So, there are names attached to “Most Bangable,” “Best Rack,” “Best Ass.” And presumably the young women are supposed to feel flattered.

Vivian is shy and unsure of herself. Asked to write an essay on what she is passionate about and what steps she has taken to pursue it, she draws a blank. But we see in a dream she has the night before school starts, she has some strong feelings she does not know how to express. The arrival of a new student named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) will give her a new perspective and help her find her voice.

The school’s alpha male is Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), arrogant and predatory. But his behavior is dismissed by the school’s principal (Marcia Gay Harden as Ms. Shelley) and the students. When he finds he cannot intimidate Lucy, he becomes even more aggressive. Vivian tells Lucy to ignore him so he will move on to someone else. “Keep your head down,” she advises. Lucy says she will be keeping her head up, and Vivian for the first time considers how pernicious the behavior of Mitchell and his friends is. It is more than teasing.

Vivian is close to her single mom, Lisa, played by director/producer Amy Poehler. When Lisa says that at Vivian’s age she was trying to burn down the patriarchy (crucially, she admits that as engaged as she was, she made a lot of mistakes and was not as inclusive as she should have been). Vivian goes through Lisa’s old files and sees the “zine” she and her friends created. And so Vivian follows in that tradition (and in the tradition of “Bridgerton’s” Lady Whistldown and A in “Pretty Little Liars”), Vivian creates an anonymous zine called Moxie (1930s slang for spirited determination), calling out the behavior of the boys who publish the rankings and insult girls. She leaves copies in the girls’ rooms at school, asking everyone who supports her ideas to draw stars and hearts on their hands. And some of the girls too. So does one boy, Seth (Nico Hiraga of “Booksmart” and “Edge of Seventeen”).

“Moxie” is based on the novel by high school teacher Jennifer Mathieu, and you can see the lived experience of working with teenagers, at the same time righteous and vulnerable, in the film. At times, it becomes didactic, as though it is running through a checklist of abuse, and some of the items on that list (the right to wear a tank top to school) are out of proportion to the others. And the resolution in the end is far tidier than anyone who has seen or read about real-life cases will buy.

What works better is the portrayal of the strain on Vivian’s friendship with Claudia as she becomes closer in both the relationship and the style of Lucy. This is more than the usual teen drama about outgrowing childhood connections. It is about developing a deeper understanding and empathy, and that extends not just to Claudia, but to the other girls in the school as well. The emphasis on finding ways to support each other despite differences is well handled. The film should spark some important conversations, some second thoughts about the line between “boys will be boys” and recognizing and stopping damaging behavior. It even might inspire some stars and hearts, some zines, and other ways for girls to tell their stories.

Parents should know that this film concerns toxic masculinity and abuse ranging from insults and objectification to rape. It includes sexual references and some mild language.

Family discussion: Does this movie make you see some incidents at your school differently?

If you like this, try: “Nine to Five,” “Booksmart,” and the documentary “Roll Red Roll”

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Freaky

Posted on November 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, mother abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense and graphic horror violence, many grisly murders, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 13, 2020
Date Released to DVD: February 8, 2021
Copyright Blumhouse 2020

If you read my reviews, you know I usually skip the horror movies. So, forgive me if my thoughts on “Freaky” reflect my ignorance. But I was intrigued by the premise of a large male serial killer switching bodies with a blonde teenage girl. And I like the cast, so I watched it, and it’s pretty fun.

But I don’t know enough about horror films to tell you whether the pedestrian set-up and stock characters are just a shortcut because the filmmakers don’t care — and know the audience doesn’t care — and everyone just wants to get to the good stuff, or because they are making some sort of meta-commentary on the whole idea and genre of teen slasher movies. Maybe both. Probably it does not matter. So, let’s just get to the good stuff.

Certainly, the movie wastes no time in getting there. It begins, as all good self-aware teen slasher movies should, with teens in a luxurious but still somehow creepy setting, outside a mansion, trading stories about a legendary serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher. Some say he’s just a legend. Some say he re-appears every year. We have just enough time to see how arrogant and obnoxious these overprivileged kids are (that’s how we feel better about their horrific murders, right?) before the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) arrives, killing them in various creative but grisly and very bloody ways.

Then we meet Milly (Kathryn Newton of “Big Little Lies”), who lives with her recently widowed and therefore vulnerable and clingy mother and her older sister, a police officer. Milly is in high school. She has two devoted best friends, Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla Celeste O’Connor. But she also has bullies, including tiny but fierce mean girl Ryler (Melissa Collazo), some guys, and her shop class teacher (Alan Ruck, yes, Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).

After the homecoming football game (which does not get cancelled even though a group of students have all been horribly murdered, but okay), Milly is left alone waiting for her mother to pick her up. The Butcher attacks her with a mysterious knife he stole from the mansion. And it turns out to have magical powers or a curse or whatever. When the Butcher stabs Milly, their bodies switch. And, as they will later find out, if they don’t switch back by midnight the next day, they’ll be stuck that way.

This is where everyone starts to have some fun. Vaughn is a hoot trying to persuade Nyla and Josh that it is really Milly inside that 6’5″ middle-aged male body. And Newton has a blast with her new bad self inside the body of a high school girl. Milly is not able to muster the courage to stand up to her shop class teacher or the bullies or to talk to her crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton), but Milly on the outside, Butcher on the inside usually does. Let’s just say that there’s a reason it’s the SHOP class teacher who has been so mean to her.

And of course it all ends up at a big teen party.

In between all of the murders and mayhem, there is room for some sly humor and some genuine warmth as Milly-in-the-Butcher’s-Body hides out in a discount store dressing room and talks to her mom on the other side of the door, and some romance as she and Booker have a quiet, very sweet conversation in a car. There’s a vicarious thrill at seeing the Butcher-in-Milly’s-body stand up (even if it is in a murderous manner) to the people who treated Milly badly.

I’m still not a horror fan, but I enjoyed this one, and if you are a horror fan I’m pretty sure you will, too.

Parents should know this is a full-on horror movie with many disturbing images and grisly murders. Characters use strong language and there are references to sex (some crude) and to alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: What did Milly learn about her mother in the dressing room? How would you convince someone that you were you if you suddenly looked completely different?

If you like this, try: “Jennifer’s Body” and “Shawn of the Dead”

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Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted on June 28, 2019 at 7:32 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright Sony 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.

Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.

Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.

Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.

The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.

I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.

The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.

Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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The Hate U Give

Posted on October 4, 2018 at 5:42 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, drug and drug dealing references
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, teenager killed by a police officer
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 5, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 21, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
The Hate U Give” is one of the best and most important films of the year. Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel about a girl named Starr has become a profound and profoundly moving film. It is an of-this-moment, vitally urgent story about race, culture, and America in 2018, but it is also a deeply human, deeply moving exploration of the most universal themes: family, identity, growing up, forgiveness, and finding your voice.

The incandescent young actor/activist Amandla Stenberg (Rue in “The Hunger Games”) plays Starr, the middle child and only daughter in a loving family. She is completely at home in their neighborhood of Garden Heights. But you can get “jumped, high, pregnant, or killed” at the local high school, and so she and her older brother attend a private school called Williamson, where most of the students are white and wealthy. She calls the version of herself they see “Starr version 2.” When the white kids sing along to hip hop or use black slang, she smiles politely but knows that if she does the same thing she will appear too “ghetto.” But she has a nice (white) boyfriend named Chris (K.J. Apa), and some nice white girl friends she can complain to when Chris tried to push her into having sex.

At a party in Garden Heights, she feels more at home, but some of the people there are suspicious of her for possibly “acting white.” She runs into an old friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to drive her home. As children, they played Harry Potter together with a third friend, but they have fallen out of touch. Starr can tell from his very expensive, mint-condition shoes that he may be in trouble. Khalil has begun to deal drugs because it is the only way he can support his ailing grandmother.

They are stopped by a white policeman who thinks that Khalil is reaching for a weapon and shoots him. Starr sees it all. Starr is devastated. And she begins to see herself and her world differently. The Williamson students walk out of school to protest in support of Black Lives Matter — or to get out of school. Starr’s friend stops following her on Instagram because Starr connects the killing of her friend to tragic injustices like the murder of Emmett Till.

As we see in the opening scene, Starr has been told since she was a child how to respond to law enforcement. As we will learn later, this is not the first time she has lost someone close to her to violence. As she has to decide whether she will tell the truth about what she saw, putting her Williamson persona at risk and, because of Khalil’s involvement with a powerful neighborhood drug dealer, putting her family and her community at risk as well.

Every performance in the film is a gem, especially Regina Hall (“Support the Girls”) and Russell Hornsby (“Fences”) as Starr’s parents and Stenberg herself, who has extraordinary screen charisma and a remarkable control of detail to show us how Starr begins to integrate the separate versions of herself. The film brings in a remarkably nuanced range of perspectives, especially in two standout scenes: Starr talking to her police officer uncle (Common) about the ways he sees black and white suspects, and Starr talking to her mother about forgiveness. Every element of the story is handled with sensitivity, respect, and a deem humanity, from the specifics of Starr’s relationships to the big themes of how we interact with the world and how we work for change. This is a rare film that does justice to the characters and the themes as it reminds us that we can all do more to bring justice to the world.

Translation: Unarmed character shot by a police officer, peril and violence, protests, guns, vandalism, arson, some teen partying, drug dealing, some strong language

Family discussion: Should Starr speak out? What are the risks and how can she best make a difference? How can you?

If you like this, try: “Boyz n the Hood,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Blindspotting,” and the book by Angie Thomas

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