Contest

Posted on December 16, 2013 at 9:42 pm

CONTEST_KA_R5.indd“Contest” more than makes up for some first-time-filmmaker shortcomings with its sincerity and unexpected strengths in the storyline and cinematography.

Tommy (Danny Flaherty) is a high school loner, often bullied by the swim team jocks led by Matt (Kenton Duty).  Both boys do not have parents.  Tommy lives with his grandmother (“The Good Wife’s” Mary Beth Peil), who owns a pizzeria.  Matt lives with his older brother Kyle (Kyle Dean Massey).

When security camera footage of the swim team throwing Tommy into the pool lets Matt in trouble, the assistant principal tells him that if he can make friends with Tommy and lead the anti-bullying campaign for 30 days, he can be reinstated in his extra-curricular activities.  Tommy is not interested at first, but when he is selected for a television teen cooking show competition and needs teammates to try for the $50,000 prize, he grudgingly accepts Matt’s help.

Meanwhile, the young, arrogant landlord who owns the pizzeria’s lease wants to get her out.  Tommy’s brother Kyle is given the assignment of making sure she cannot exercise her option to buy the property.

The young actors sometimes struggle with the material and the face-slaps from the all-female opposing team are unfortunate.  But the script is absorbing, with some unexpected twists, appealing characters (I especially liked the grandmother and the pretty blogger), and real insights into the origins of bullying and its impact on the bully as well as the victim.

Parents should know that this film concern bullying and includes some rough talk.

Family discussion:  Why do people become bullies?  How are the teens in this story like the adults around them?  What does Tommy mean about “flipping the switch?”  What changes Matt’s mind?

If you like this, try: “Mean Girls”

 

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High School School Stories about Teens

Carrie

Posted on October 17, 2013 at 5:50 pm

The remake of “Carrie” is not a bad movie; it’s just a completely unnecessary one.  The 1976 original is a horror classic, directed by Brian de Palma and the first film based on a novel by Stephen King, just 26 years old when he sold the rights for $2500.  Both of its stars were nominated for Oscars, almost unheard of for a genre film, and it is number 46 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 thrillers.Carrie poster

The idea of updating the story of the bullied high school girl to the era of Facebook and YouTube had some intriguing possibilities, especially directed by Kimberly Peirce, whose extraordinary “Boys Don’t Cry” had an insightful authenticity in the portrayal of young people who felt like outsiders.  But there is nothing especially timely, revealing, or surprising in this remake.  The performances are not up to the level of the original and even the special effects do not seem much better than those in the version that came out when Gerald Ford was President.

Less than a moment into the film, we are already immersed in blood.  We hear screams and we see a Bible.  Margaret White (Julianne Moore) is in bed, the sheets all bloody, moaning and praying.  She thinks she is dying and she thinks it is because she is being punished.  But the pains she feels are contractions and she is shocked to find a baby emerging from her.  At first, she wants to kill her new daughter with her sewing shears.  But she loves the newborn too much to hurt her and, as we learn, she sees the baby as another chance for her to be pure, to be kept safe from the predations of sin and the devil.

We then see Margaret’s daughter, Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz of “Kick-Ass” and “Let Me In”), a shy, repressed, somewhat backward senior in high school and ignored or insulted by the other girls.  She gets her period for the first time in the locker room after PE and becomes hysterical.  Like her mother, she has no idea what is going on with her body and she thinks she is dying.  The other girls are horrified that she is so ignorant and make fun of her, throwing tampons and sanitary napkins at her.  Chris, the ringleader (Portia Doubleday) gets it all on her cell phone camera and uploads it to YouTube.

Margaret seems to think that if she had been able to keep Carrie “pure” she never would have gone through puberty.  She locks Carrie in a small closet under the stairs and tells her to stay in there and pray.

But puberty seems to have unlocked some special powers in Carrie, powers that seem tied to her emotions.  As she sits in the principal’s office, his water cooler bubbles and then explodes. Carrie gets books on miracles and telekinesis from the library and begins to see what she can do and how much she can control.  For the first time, she begins to sense some independence and to rebel against her mother.

Sue (Gabriella Wilde) feels guilty about her role in making fun of Carrie and asks her boyfriend, Tommy (Ansel Elgort, soon to be seen in both “Divergent” and ‘The Fault in Our Stars”) to invite Carrie to the prom.  She says no at first, but then accepts, and his kindness and courtesy make her feel appreciated for the first time.  Until….

And that’s the thing.  Everyone knows what happens at the prom.  It is one of the most famous images in cinematic history.  This replay adds nothing new.

Moretz is a thoughtful and serious young actor, but she is better at playing a precociously sophisticated and capable character like Hit Girl or even the friend of the Wimpy Kid than she is at trying to show us the innocent and vulnerable Carrie.  More at fault is the script, which fails to provide a consistent emotional truth for the character. Like the Hulk, her powers are rooted in fury.  King, even in his 20’s, knew how satisfying that would be for everyone who has been picked on (that is everyone), and Moretz is at her best when enjoying the sense of righteous revenge.  To make the movie work, though, that would need to be balanced by an underlying sense of the character that is never there.  The same goes for Margaret. In 2013, the thoughts of a religious fanatic open up some possibilities worth exploring but Peirce is more interested in re-creating the original than updating it.

Parents should know that this film has extensive and graphic peril and violence with many characters brutally killed, disturbing and bloody images, sexual references and situations involving teenagers, a graphic childbirth scene, teen drinking, and strong language.

Family discussion:  Why were the girls so mean to Carrie?  How has bullying changed since the story was first written?  How did Carrie feel about her powers and why?

If you like this, try: the original film and some of the other Stephen King adaptations like “The Shining” and “Sleepwalkers”

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Based on a book High School Horror Remake Stories about Teens Thriller

Beautiful Creatures

Posted on February 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, scary images, and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language, crude insult
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Supernatural images, violence, peril, characters injured and killed, references to loss of parents
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2013
Date Released to DVD: May 20, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B009AMAGXK

In a small Southern town that feels far from everything, where everyone is “too stupid to leave or too stuck to move,” a teenage boy named Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) dreams every night of a girl he has never seen.  Ethan has recently lost his mother.  His father is never there.  He is about to start his junior year in high school “so insanity’s inevitable.”  But his mother’s best friend Amma (Viola Davis), the local librarian, looks out for him.  There are books that he loves.  And the dream feels very real and somehow comforting.

Suddenly it is real as Lena Duchannes (Alice Englart) comes to town to live with her uncle, Macon Ravenswood (Jeremy Irons) in a creepy old mansion. Ethan feels an immediate connection, but Lena seems reluctant to talk to him or to make any friends in her new school.  Some of the other kids in the class feel the same way.  There are rumors that the Ravenswoods have strange powers.

The rumors are true.  “You know how some families are musical and some have money.  We have powers,” Lena explains.  She is a witch or, to use the term her people prefer, she is a “caster.”  She is 15 and on her 16th birthday she will be chosen for the light side or the dark.

No one wants Ethan and Lena to be together.  But the love they share is stronger than any caster powers from the dark or the light.

The storyline is fairly basic but touches of self-aware humor help to hold our interest.  And it is fun to watch Irons swan around in ascots and smoking jackets, striding past the swooping banister-less staircase in his mansion.  Thompson and Emmy Rossum clearly relish the chance to chew scenery with Spanish moss hanging all over it. They revel in the Southern gothic setting, tossing off Dixie-isms like “Slap my ass and call me Sally!” and “She looks like death eating a cracker.”  Viola Davis does what she can stuck with an exposition role that includes a completely random Nancy Reagan reference.  It is also buoyed by the lushy imaginative settings from production designer Richard Sherman and goth-glam costumes from Jeffrey Kurland and an entertaining assortment of literary and popular culture references, from Slaughterhouse Five and poet Charles Bukowski to the “Final Destination” series, Bob Dylan, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jane Austen.  Most important, writer/director Richard LaGravenes creates a world where strange things seem both wonderful and normal.  The various transformations, expanding powers, and sense of alienation seem like a tangible reflection (and only mild exaggeration) of the experience of adolescence.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of good and bad magic, some disturbing images, characters in peril, and sad deaths.

Family discussion: Who makes the choice for the casters?  What makes Lena different?  What do you learn from the sacrifice in the movie?

If you like this, try: the series of books by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the books read by Ethan and Lena in the movie, and the “Twilight” films

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Based on a book Date movie Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy High School Romance

Here Comes the Boom

Posted on October 11, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Kevin James is so gosh-darned likable that he can make up for a lot of sub-par material, but not even he can make this tiresome effort work.  James co-wrote the story, an attempted feel-good saga of a lost-mojo high school science teacher who finds his passion when the school’s music budget is cut and he decides to raise the money to save it by losing a series of mixed martial arts fights, inspiring everyone around him and winning the love of the school nurse.  But the movie itself comes nowhere near mojo.  It taps out right from the start and the promised Boom never arrives.

James plays Scott, who is as unenthusiastic about his students as the texting teacher in the recent “Won’t Back Down.”  He does not do much other than hit on School Nurse Flores (Selma Hayek), who has as little interest in him as he as in his job, his self-respect, or his future.  But he takes pity on the sweet-natured music teacher Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), who loves teaching, because budget cuts eliminate the music program just as Marty’s wife, defying the odds, becomes pregnant in her late 40’s.  Scott promises to help.  He takes on another job, teaching immigrants how to pass their citizenship tests, which leads to a painful scene of condescending ethnic humor.  People from other countries don’t speak good English!  Alert the media!

One of those students is Niko (real-life MMA star Bas Rutten, a James regular), an exercise instructor and MMA coach.  Scott finds out how much money can be made by losing MMA matches and decides that since he was a college wrestler, he is “good enough to lose.”  Cue the training montage and the beat-down montage.  And a limply staged and random food fight.  And the mojo montage, as everyone is inspired by this very uninspiring underdog story.  They could have included a montage of me looking at my watch.  It would last as long and be almost as exciting.

I did enjoy the use of Neil Diamond as Scott’s entrance music and Ruten has some rough charm.  But Scott’s attempts to make a connection between stagnant cells and the dispiriting state of schools where teachers “can’t speed up the good ones or slow down for the other ones” falls flat because the film’s own lack of energy feels pretty stagnant itself. Boom, you say?  More like a sigh.

Parents should know that this film has extended and sometimes intense “action-style” mixed martial arts violence, with no blood or graphic injuries except a dislocated shoulder but a lot of beating up and getting beaten up. It also has some language, some crude humor (barfing, crotch hit, jokes about fertility of an older woman and about cross-dressing), an AA meeting, and some ethnic humor.

Family discussion: What does “good enough to lose” mean? How did Scott’s experiences as a fighter change the way he thought about teaching? How can someone be jealous of someone else’s passion?

If you like this, try: Kevin James’ “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” or a more dramatic film about MMA fighters, “Warrior”

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Comedy High School Romance Sports

The Amazing Spider-Man

Posted on July 2, 2012 at 8:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended superhero fantasy peril and violence, some teen bullying, sad loss of four parents/parent figures, some disturbing mutation images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2012
Date Released to DVD: November 5, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: B008QZ5PY2

One thing I love about comics is that they are the only form of story-telling, with the possible exception of soap operas, where so many different people tell open-ended stories about the adventures of the same characters through a period that stretches over decades.  The Wikipedia entry on Spider-Man’s “multiverse” includes more than 30 different versions, from the comic strip, cartoon, mutant, and zombie to the spectacular, amazing, noir, hulk, and kid-friendly “Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.”  So, much as I enjoyed the Tobey Maguire trilogy (well, the first two) directed by Sam Raimi, I was looking forward to this reboot.

It does not bother me that 28-year-old Andrew Garfield, who has already played a college student (“The Social Network”) and an adult (“Red Riding”) is playing a high school student.  It does not bother me that we have to go through the whole origin story all over again — spider bite, having fun trying out the new powers, death of kindly Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen taking over from Cliff Robertson), though it really should not take up nearly an hour, and much as I love her, Sally Field can’t match Rosemary Harris’ iconic Aunt May.  The efforts to tie Peter Parker’s parents (briefly glimpsed Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) in with the shenanigans going on at Oscorp feel cluttered, and Rhys Ifans as the scientist who lost an arm in his experiments and wants to find a way for humans to regrow limbs the way some animals do does not make a strong impression either as human or as the Godzilla-like creature he becomes.  The problem may be that if Sony does not keep up its schedule of Spider-Man movies, the rights revert to Disney, which bought Marvel.  So at times it feels like a place-holder for the franchise.

But there are a couple of things that work very well and make this an entertaining entry in the superhero canon.  First, and let’s face it, this is what we want from Spider-Man movies, it is a blast to see your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man swing his webby way through the city.  In crystal clear IMAX 3D and with true mechanical effects — that is Garfield’s real weight swinging on real strings, not CGI — it is exhilaratingly vertiginous.

Garfield is less soulful and broody than Maguire, more athletic and witty.  Peter Parker’s hipster signifiers include a skateboard, a hoodie, and a Mark Gonzales poster.  And the heavenly Emma Stone plays beautiful science nerd Gwen Stacey, a more interesting character than would-be actress Mary Jane.  There is genuine electricity between Peter and Gwen and director Marc Webb brings the same feel for young love he displayed in “(500) Days of Summer.”  This unexpected tenderness gives heft to the story that in its own way is exhilaratingly vertiginous, too, and gave my Spidey sense a bit of a tingle.

Parents should know that this film has extended super-hero action-style violence, not very graphic but with some disturbing images of mutation and peril, and four sad deaths of parents or parent figures.

Family discussion: How does this compare to the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man series?  Why didn’t Peter try to stop the robbery when he first got his spider-powers?  What made Connors and Chief Stacy change their minds about Spider-Man?

If you like this, try: the first and second of the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” films and the Essential Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby

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Action/Adventure Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Crime DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy High School Series/Sequel Superhero
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