Love, Simon

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family situations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: June 11, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018

If you are scrolling through Netflix you may run across movies like 2000’s The Truth About Jane, where family or friends discover that someone is gay, get upset, try to deny it or force the gay person into therapy, and then learn in time for a big happy ending at a Pride parade that love is what matters, no matter who the person they love loves. A lot has happened in 18 years, and thankfully we are pretty much past the point where a story about a family freak-out over the discovery that someone is gay is worth making a movie about. Yet there are two elements that are notable about “Love, Simon.” It is the first major studio romantic comedy about a gay teenager. And, much more notable, the real issue is not about his being gay; it is just about his being a teenager.

Love, Simon” is based on the award-winning book by psychologist Becky Albertalli. It is indeed a comedy. There are many very funny lines, and gems of comic performances by two of the adults in the film. The always-great Tony Hale (“Veep”) plays a high-spirited vice-principal who likes to confiscate cell phones and act like a princi-PAL, and Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”) is absolutely hilarious as a put-upon drama teacher forced to direct a production of “Cabaret” that is required to include every student who wants to be in the cast. Making the adults in the story the comic relief is a very nice touch.

And it is definitely a romance. I can’t remember when I’ve heard an audience respond with cheers and applause as joyous as they did when the big kiss moment finally arrived. But what makes this film really special is that is about feelings everyone has — the feeling of being alone, outside some sort of magic circle everyone else seems to know how to get inside, the worry about letting people down, the soul-shrinking experience of actually letting them down even more than you feared, the terror of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, the joy of being seen and understood.

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer”) plays Simon, a high school senior who has everything — loving, generous parents (who also happen to be gorgeous — Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), a cute kid sister, and great friends with whom he shares “way too many iced coffees, bad 90’s movies, and gorge on carbs at the Waffle House.” His life is just about perfect except that he has not been able to find a way to tell anyone that he is gay.

The school has a gossipy website where a student who calls himself Blue says that he is gay but cannot come out. So Simon writes him as “Jacques” and the two of them instantly fall into a close, supportive friendship with perhaps a little bit of flirting. What makes this really great in the film is that it allows/requires Simon (whose full name, as he points out, means “he who hears” and “he who sees”) to look at every male student in the school differently, as he wonders which one is Blue and even pictures different students in the situations Blue describes. That experience, as much as the correspondence itself, widens his world and makes him more empathetic, similar to the different perspectives in last year’s “Wonder.”

An obnoxious student discovers the correspondence and threatens to publish it unless Simon helps him get close to Abby, a transfer student who has become a part of Simon’s group of friends.

A brief fantasy sequence about what being gay might be like in college is a lot of fun, and a scene where Simon imagines that heterosexual teens should have to come out to their parents is sharply funny. But what makes this movie special is its tender heart. It is wise about friendships, about those first tentative steps toward intimacy, about being honest, not just about what you are but who you are, and about the unforgettable tenderness of that first kiss.

Parents should know that the theme of this film is a gay high schooler struggling to come out and it includes kisses, a brief crude sexual reference, teen drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why could Simon tell Blue and Abby before Leah and his family? Would you like to have a “Secrets” website for your school?

If you like this, try: “G.B.F.,” “Never Been Kissed,” and “Easy A”

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Fifty Shades Freed

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 6:36 pm

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 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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Peter Rabbit

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 11:11 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor and action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, explosions, electrocutions, references to sad parental deaths and killing animals, human character collapses and dies
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 30, 2018

Copyright 2017 Sony
We’re only six weeks in, and we’ve already had two live action/animation adaptations of beloved British classics of children’s literature, both starring members of the Gleeson family. One will go down in history as an example of how to do it right and the other, if it must remembered at all, will be the example of how to do it wrong. For the record, Paddington 2, starring Brendan Gleeson, captured the gentle charm of the stories because it trusted its source material and it trusted its audience. But “Peter Rabbit,” based on the books and paintings by Beatrix Potter, tries to make the classic story of a bunny who ignores his mother’s warning and almost gets caught by the farmer when he steals into the garden into a hyped-up, wink-at-the-crowd mess of slapstick, meta-narrative, and story of love and redemption. By trying to be contemporary, it loses the very qualities that have made it beloved in generations of nurseries.

As in the original book, before the story begins Peter’s father was captured by Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) and eaten in a pie. Unlike the book, Peter’s mother is gone, too, and he is responsible for his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail and his cousin, Benjamin Bunny. Peter (voice of James Corden) is reckless and over-confident, leading Benjamin into the garden, which McGregor has covered with scary-looking steel traps. “There are other ways to get a meal,” he’s warned. “But not as fun!” Peter says, happy to risk not just his own life, but the others’ as well.

Peter deftly avoids the traps, but almost ends up in a pie himself, escaping by slipping out of his denim jacket, which McGregor uses on a (tiny) scarecrow. Aiding his rescue is McGregor’s neighbor, Bea (as in Beatrix Potter), a sweet-spirited artist who lives next door and is a friend to all of the local animals.

When Peter goes back to retrieve his jacket, McGregor catches him. It is almost too late for him to save himself when suddenly McGregor, like Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” has a sudden heart attack in the garden, collapses and dies. Though Peter takes credit for vanquishing his foe, the narrator (Margot Robbie) assures us that his death is attributable to “78 years of bad lifestyle choices,” with a merry little montage of McGregor inhaling asbestos and eating high-fat food. Really?

This, of course, is not in the book, is completely unnecessary to the storyline, and is likely to raise concerns in some of the young viewers, especially after Peter brags that he made it happen.

The property is inherited by another Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a persnickety control-freak of a great-nephew who barely knew he had a great-uncle with a farm and never met him. Thomas McGregor works for the famous Harrods department store, where he has a complete meltdown after being denied a promotion due to nepotism. If all of this seems superficial and unnecessary, that is because it is.

His arrival at the farm brings mayhem as he battles Peter and the rest of the local critters for the vegetable garden and the house, trying not to let his pretty neighbor know that he is not as much of an animal-lover as she is.

The movie opens with soaring birds singing an uplifting ballad — and then getting smushed, which becomes a repeated gag. So from the beginning, this film undercuts itself, winking at the audience and then trying to take it back. A joke about today’s parents’ oversensitivity to allergies is followed by “just kidding; don’t write letters!” “Don’t explain the joke,” Benjamin Bunny says. But that’s just what the movie does, constantly unsure of its focus and tone. Some sweet moments and lovely animation cannot make up for a film that is, to use a food metaphor, overstuffed and yet undernourished.

Parents should know that this movie includes some comic peril and violence, but a human character collapses and dies and there are references to the sad loss of Peter Rabbit’s parents, including his father’s being made into a pie, brief potty humor, some body shaming, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What did the characters learn about apologizing? Should farmers let animals eat their crops? What is your character flaw?

If you like this, try: “Babe,” “Paddington” and “Paddington 2,” and “Miss Potter,” with as Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Ewan McGregor as her publisher

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The Clapper

Posted on January 18, 2018 at 4:06 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mild
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, reference to sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 26, 2018
Copyright 2017 Momentum Pictures

“The Clapper” is an unpretentious little indie from writer/director Dito Montiel, adapting his own novel. It has actors who are familiar from studio movies and television playing quirky characters with a bit of social satire some family dysfunction, and a love story. The screenplay is uneven, but the exceptionally strong cast makes it watchable.

Ed Helms is a gifted actor/comedian who can play something other than a repressed, depressed but very nice guy (see, for example, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” and “We’re the Millers”), but that seems to be where he is most comfortable. Like the neglected gem “Cedar Rapids,” which he produced, as he did here, Helms plays a man who has shut down many of his emotions following a loss. He has what might be termed a micro-job. He and his best friend, Chris (Tracy Morgan) are “clappers.” They sit in the audience in infomercials and appear to be amazed and wildly enthusiastic about whatever is being pitched. Occasionally, they will get a line like, “There’s more?” for a couple of extra bucks. He has a hat and a fake moustache to try to look different for each show.

But a late-night host (Russell Peters) figures out that it is the same guy in all of the ads, and turns it into a bit, crowdsourcing a “Where’s the clapper?” search for the elusive audience member. It goes viral. In the world of this film, there is something existentially compelling about the sad sack who has nothing better to do than pretend to be in ecstasy over a bunch of cheesy junk and get rich quick schemes.

You might think that with a main character named Eddie Krumble, the movie is going to be harsher and more sharply satiric than it is. But there is a sweetness to it that is undeniably captivating. The talk show host and his producers (Adam Levine and the very funny P.J. Byrne) are out for ratings and not especially sensitive, but they are also not cartoonish villains, and they are not without heart. Eddie is horrified at the attention and knows it means he will lose his job, but he agrees to go on the show so he can find Judy (Amanda Seyfried), the shy, animal-loving gas station attendant he loves from afar. He does not think through the consequences of his appeal, because of course he turns on her the same kind of misery he has been subjected to as a result of the spotlight.

The script is uneven, with some awkward shifts in tone, as when Eddie’s mother appears as a caricature out of step with the rest of the film. But the movie’s biggest failure is in the character of Judy. Seyfried gives one of her best performances, but cannot save the character from the lack of agency or even personality that is the fault of the script. She is pretty much just there to for Eddie to respond to.

NOTE: I have a connection to this film. My daughter, Rachel Apatoff, was the assistant costume designer. So I make no pretense of objectivity in stating that the costumes were all superb and one of the highlights of the movie.

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Forever My Girl

Posted on January 18, 2018 at 12:39 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including drinking, and for language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse, reference to drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death, scene in hospital, child in peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 19, 2018

Copyright 2017 Forever My Girl
Well, there is a brief song by Travis Tritt. And actor Alex Roe is personable and engaging even in the preposterously imagined role of Liam Page, a country singer whose every moment is obsessed over by zillions of fans and all of the magazines sold at grocery store checkout counters. But that can’t make up for the syrupy Nicholas Sparks wannabe storyline, clunky dialogue (we are told three times in the first seven minutes that hometown boy Liam is on the brink of stardom) and the excruciatingly chirpy child at its heart.

Liam Page runs out on his wedding, leaving Josie (Jessica Rothe) in their Louisiana hometown and going off to pursue a career in music. Eight years later, he is is a country superstar, performing in arenas and chased by fans as though he is a Beatle. A would-be groupie accidentally breaks his vintage cell phone, and he runs to the store barefoot offering $10,000 to get it repaired. Under the duct tape and the bent antenna there is a voicemail he just cannot lose (or, apparently, download to another phone). This is, of course, documented by fans on their (up to date) cell phones and a major news story.

Liam is a mess, drinking too much, behind on the songs he owes his record label. When he finds out that his hometown best friend has been killed in an accident, he returns, to stand outside the church during the funeral, unable to bring himself to go inside. He gets a grim greeting from the preacher, who is his father, and a punch in the stomach from Josie. But it turns out that Josie has a seven year old daughter, and it does not take a math whiz to figure out that Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson) unfortunately conceived as 90 percent precocious sass with gratingly quippy commentary about the “stats on surviving an accident in a convertible — they are low, staggeringly low.” “What happened to Mom’s rose garden?” Liam asks his father in case we are missing the metaphor. Don’t worry, no one possibly could.

The town (Georgia playing the part of Louisiana) is like the setting for a Hallmark channel Christmas movie starring Hannah Montana, with twinkly lights and bustling businesses on Main Street, and just filled with good neighbors who are endlessly supportive and kind and unanimous in their rejection of the hometown boy who jilted Josie. We know where this is all going, but it is still jarring when Josie goes from a Taylor Swiftian “we are never ever getting back together” to “I want to go on a magical superstar date!”

Listen, Nicholas Sparks is already Nicholas Sparks lite. You can’t really take it any further or, I should say, make it more shallow than that. Pretty people with pretty problems will always be playing on a screen somewhere, but this one is better suited for watching while folding laundry.

Parents should know that this film includes drinking and alcohol abuse, reference to drug use, sad parental death, offscreen fatal accident, mild references to groupies and pregancy, and some language.

Family discussion: Why did Liam leave Josie? Should she forgive him? Why?

If you like this, try: “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” “The Lucky One” and “Dear John”

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