Mortal Engines

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:37 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense fantasy/action peril and violence, bombs, explosions, knives, many characters injured and killed including parents, some grisly images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
Well, it looks amazing. Producer Peter Jackson has brought the same artistic vision to “Mortal Engines” that he did to the “Lord of the Rings” films. But this time the visual splendor is just too sharp a contrast with a story that is a long, long way from the deeply imagined world of Tolkien. It is based on a seven (so far) series of books by Philip Reeve about a post-apocalyptic world in which cities roll around on enormous, ravenous monster steampunk vehicles. The vehicles are pretty cool. The story is not. It’s just another derivative post-apocalyptic story about utter catastrophe and corruption, where the only hope is a small group of hot teenagers, a lesser “Hunger Games/Divergent/Maze Runner/Ender’s Game” knock-off, with a touch of “Battlefield Earth,” “Terminator,” and even a hint of the original “Star Wars” trilogy (now episodes IV and V).

We’re informed at the beginning that it took just an hour to destroy life as we know it, literally, geographically remaking the map of the world, with super-weapons that shattered the surface of the planet. Humanity has reverted to survival of the fittest, which means that there is only a very thin veneer of any kind of social structure beyond “might makes right.” London is might, and in the opening scene we see the London literal ship of state take over a smaller city/vehicle absorbing its resources, including its residents, who are “welcomed” by being turned into slave labor.

That thin veneer includes some superficial trappings of the civilization that preceded it, including “historians” who operate a “museum,” where they try to parse the meaning of the shards of 21st century life, especially the technology as it appears written records did not survive. But we will learn that the real reason for this supposed interest in the past is to get access to the very same weapons that caused the disaster. Santayana said that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. In this case, the only history that is studied is by those who intend to repeat it.

The real star of the film is production designer Dan Hennah. The machinery is wonderfully intricate and detailed. The settings are so gorgeously done that they just point up the under-imagined quality of the script, which is basically: A rebel girl with a scar on her face (Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw) and a “historian” from the museum (Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy) are on the run from the evil Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who killed Hester’s mother and tried to kill Tom. He is the one whose interest in the museum’s artifacts was just a cover for tracking down all the missing pieces to reconstruct the big blaster, but he has a nice blonde daughter named Katherine (Leila George) who gets to find out that her father has been lying to her about pretty much everything. Hester and Tom are also on the run from a Terminator-type cyborg/zombie who was once a man but is now a single-minded killing machine (Stephen Lang, warming up for “Avatar” sequels or maybe cooling down from them.

Some books are fine as they are. Some are untranslatable to the screen, and some, like this one, should stay between the covers because bringing them to life only shows how lifeless they are.

Parents should  know that this movie includes intense and sometimes graphic peril and violence, murder, explosions, knives, guns, bombs, characters injured and killed including parents, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: Why did Valentine pretend to love history? How were knowledge and ignorance of history both used by different characters?

If you like this, try: “The Maze Runner” and “City of Ember”

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A Star is Born

Posted on October 3, 2018 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Some fights, medical issues, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 5, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

There are movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that are periodically remade to reflect changing times. And then there is “A Star is Born,” with its fifth version in just under 90 years, where the difference is in the details of the characters and performances but the theme remains the same. Going back to 1932, with “What Price Hollywood,” and then the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand versions of this same name, it remains the story of a fading male performer with substance abuse problems who falls in love with a young, talented female, helps her become a star, and then realizes he is in her way.

It is perhaps surprising that this story still carries so much power to move us. It could be corny and dated. After all, stars these days go to rehab and then come out to tell their stories of redemption and healthy habits on the cover of People Magazine. The credit for this latest version’s compelling power goes to its director/co-writer/star, Bradley Cooper, who has told the story with verve, specificity, and conviction, and who wisely selected pop superstar Lady Gaga to play the part of the young singer. Life imitates art for the performer originally as famous for her transgressive videos and wild attire (who can forget the meat dress, now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum?) as for her music. Reportedly, when Cooper met the artist originally known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, he wiped the makeup off her face and told her that was how he wanted her to be seen in the film. Her character, Ally, would not be the highly burnished, defiantly confident, even brazen pop performer in grotesque haute couture, but the real girl underneath. That girl is a revelation. The emotions we see on her face as he tries to pull her onstage for the first time, and then her resolve as she steps out from the wings are achingly honest.

Writer/director/co-star Bradley Cooper shows as much evident pride and pleasure in showing her to us as his character, Jackson Maine, does in pulling Ally onstage to introduce her to the audience by making her sing, for the first time, her own songs. His careful attention to every detail is evident in every moment and he has a true musician’s sense of pace and timing. The songs are not just lovely; each of them is meaningful in revealing character and helps to tell the story. The two most recent “Star is Born” movies had their songs nominated for Oscars. One was a winner; the other should have been. This follows in that tradition and I hereby predict that “Shallow” will win this year’s Best Song and that Lady Gaga will be nominated as well.

Cooper’s script reflects the intensive textual analysis he learned in his studies at the Actors Studio and his direction reflects his deep understanding of the importance of creating a safe space for actors to take risks and be completely vulnerable on screen. His own performance is meticulously considered. We see his struggle, his pain, and his passion for music. But like his character, it is very much in service to Lady Gaga as Ally. Cooper says that the idea for the film came to him when he was backstage at a Metallica concert, where he could see the intimacy of the experience of the musicians working together on stage at the same time he saw the immensity of the crowd caught up in the experience. He creates that for us here, and one of the movie’s best images is the small, private smile we see when Jackson begins his signature song. For a moment, the agony of his world disappears and all that is left is the music and the connection it makes to the audience.

Ally gives him that feeling, too. Helping her pulls him out of himself, at least for a while. But his past and dark thoughts about his future are too much to bear.

Cooper also has some small but lovely tributes to the earlier versions of the story, to James Mason wiping off Judy Garland’s garish make-up and to the bathtub scene with Streisand and Kristofferson. But this is very much a stand-alone, a timeless story of love and loss, and a stunning debut from a director who arrives fully present, utterly committed, and astonishingly in control of a vision that is a work of art and completely heartfelt.

SPOILER ALERT: All of the other versions of this story end with a suicide that is portrayed as tragic but also noble, a sacrifice to make it possible for another person to succeed. I was very concerned going into this film that it would perpetuate this toxic romanticized notion. Cooper finds a way to mitigate that to some extent, but viewers should know that it remains a very troubling issue and is the reason I did not give the film a higher grade.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, alcohol and drug abuse, some fighting, sexual references and situations, some nudity, and suicide.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Jackson tell Ally the truth about what was happening to him? What will Ally do next? How is this version of the story different from the previous films?

If you like this, try: the earlier versions of the story, with Frederic March and Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and James Mason, and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson

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Night School

Posted on September 27, 2018 at 5:58 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence
Profanity: Very strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 28, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
Maybe this movie might slide past more easily in the summer, when audiences are more susceptible to silly comedies. But it is possible even summer audiences would find this a disappointingly lesser work from two of the most unquenchably funny people in movies, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. It’s a warning sign when the opening credits show six different writers in a tangle of “ands” and “&s,.” The seams between the obvious rewrites trip over each other, interrupting the flow of the storyline and the build-up of the comedy.

The premise is in the title and the best jokes are all in the trailer. Kevin Hart plays Teddy, a high school dropout who is happy and successful, happy because he has a beautiful, accomplished, loving girlfriend (the exquisitely lovely Megalyn Echikunwoke as Lisa), but not as successful as she thinks he is because he does not want her to know that he never finished high school and is living paycheck to paycheck. His best friend Marv (Ben Schwartz) warns him that he cannot afford his duplex, Porsche, or the engagement ring he wants to give Lisa, but Teddy’s boss has promised to give him the store when he retires, and so he thinks it will all work out.

Of course, all of that has to fall apart for the story to happen, but it takes too long to get to the reason we are there — night school, so Teddy can get his GED and go to work for Marv as a financial analyst(!). And so we can see the scenes with Hart and Haddish, playing his teacher, Carrie. The early scenes drag, especially when Teddy tries to get out of paying an expensive restaurant bill by sticking his hand down his pants so he can put some hair into the food and claim it came that way from the kitchen. And then Teddy has to accidentally burn down the store, another pointless, overlong digression.

And then we get to the GED program, at the very high school that was so traumatic for Teddy, now run by his high school nemesis, Stewart (a woefully underused Taran Killam), who has a poster of “Lean on Me” behind his desk and carries a Joe Clark-style baseball bat to terrorize the students.

The night school instructor is Carrie (Haddish), a straight-talking, hard-working teacher who demands the best from students. She has no patience for the work-arounds Teddy has come up with to hide what she recognizes as learning disabilities. But she has all the patience it takes to find a way for him to succeed.

The night school classmates are lazily sketched out, relying on our familiarity with the types we have seen in so many movie classrooms and the talent of the supporting cast, including Rob Riggle playing the blustery part he usually plays, Mary Lynn Rajskub in another mousy role, and Al Madrigal as the waiter Teddy got fired in the restaurant incident. The movie heaves from one set-up to the next, and we get the sense that “Kevin does something funny” is pretty much all they had in mind for most of them. Ultimately, even that fails and they have to resort to the desperation go-to, a dance sequence. To Outkast’s “Hey-Ya.” Come on. Okay, that part made me smile, but I was not proud of myself for it.

We don’t need the movie to make sense or ring true, but we do need it not to fight with us. In other words, the events and the comedy have to bring the movie forward. It may be funny to see Haddish deliver a powerhouse punch to Hart in full boxing gear (followed by further punches as he gets more and more protective covering), but it undermines everything we have been told about her character’s dedication and decency and come on, this is how you “cure” ADD and dyslexia? Scenes like the whole class getting together to steal the answers to a test go on much too long for too little payoff. I’m a fan of director Malcolm Lee, whose films generally have an expert balance of heart and humor. This one, sorry to say, does not make the grade.

Parents should know that this film includes near-R-level language and crude humor, sexual references, comic peril and violence, and drug references.

Family discussion: How did understanding that he had learning disabilities change Teddy’s outlook? Why didn’t he tell Lisa the truth sooner?

If you like this, try: “Central Intelligence” and “Girls Trip”

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Juliet, Naked

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 3:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcoholism and drug abuse, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 24, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 13, 2018
Copyright 2018 Lionsgate

Nick Hornby understands passionate fans of rock music and the people who create it. His novel High Fidelity and the film starring John Cusack are classics. He also wrote About a Boy, the story of a man who, years after his father’s one novelty hit, is living off the royalties and not doing much else. It became a beloved film starring Hugh Grant and television series. He brought those two ideas together in Juliet, Naked, the story of a passionate fan and a faded rock star who are connected by the woman they both love.

Annie (Rose Byrne) cannot quite figure out how she got where she is and is even less able to figure out how to get anywhere else. When her parents died, she took over her father’s job as curator of a small history museum and raised her younger sister, who now works there with her. She has been living with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), her boyfriend of 15 years, a professor of popular culture who shows his students clips from “The Wire” and who operates a fan site for the elusive Tucker Crowe, a rock star whose disappearance has only increased the interest in his one classic album, called “Juliet” and inspired by a break-up.

Duncan receives some previously unreleased Crowe songs, the original demos of “Juliet,” “naked” because they have no studio sweetening or instruments other than Crowe’s guitar. For a fan who obsessively collects Crowe arcana, this is the ultimate treasure. Annie, irritated with him for his fixation on a musician who has not released any new music in decades, writes a bad review of the new tracks on Duncan’s fan site, calling it a cash grab, and she gets an email from Crowe himself, agreeing with her. This leads to an email correspondence, “You’ve Got Mail”-style. And then to a meeting IRL.

The movie was directed by a real-life rock star, Jesse Peretz of The Lemonheads, and he has a feel for the life of a rock star and the life of a fan. He (and Hornby) have less of a feel for Byrne’s character, and even Byrne’s endless charm and skill cannot make up for an underwritten role. Hawke does better. Crowe is so shaggily rueful about his own failings as a performer, a person, and a father that we almost forget just how irresponsible he has been. It’s a slight story, but it’s a sweet one.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, references to alcoholism and drug abuse, references to irresponsible behavior, and a medical issue.

Family discussion: What makes some people into super-dedicated fans? Was Annie right about the museum exhibit?

If you like this, try: “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity”

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Crazy Rich Asians

Posted on August 16, 2018 at 11:25 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 15, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 19, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

The Beatles song “Money” (“The best things in life are free/But you can keep them for the birds and bees/Now give me money/That’s what I want”) sung in Chinese begins to prepare us for the rarified world of the ultra-wealthy families of Singapore in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

It is a romantic comedy that lets us see over-the-top glamour, money, privilege, and parties through the eyes of a Chinese-American daughter of a single mother, which invites us to gawk and judge. It raises thoughtful, nuanced questions about the difference between traditional views of sacrifice for family and American views on pursuing individual dreams. It introduces us to a fabulous cast of talented, gorgeous performers all clearly loving the opportunity to be in a story with an all-Asian cast. And it presents the essential elements of a romance with great specificity of detail about the Asian and Asian-American perspective but also with great universality of experience. Most of us will never attend a $14 million wedding, but most of us have experienced the terror of meeting the family of someone we love and hoping we will be judged worthy.

A flashback scene set in 1995 gives us a sense of the scope of wealth so enormous it is a sort of superpower. A rain-drenched Asian family with young children arrives at a snooty London hotel, only to be told that the reservation they had confirmed the day before has somehow disappeared. “Perhaps you can find a place in Chinatown.” The mother (Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor) politely asks to use the phone. We next see her out in the rain again, talking in a phone booth. Then she is back in the hotel lobby, being greeted warmly by the hotel’s owner, or, to be exact, the former owner. She has just bought the hotel.

And then it’s on to the present day, where Rachel Chu (Constance Wu from “Fresh off the Boat”), a professor of economics at NYU, is showing off her expertise in poker as a demonstration of game theory for her students. “Game theory” is the study of the strategies people use in situations that give one person a chance to do better than another, whether in an actual game like chess or a contract negotiation, management of employees, or even family issues like who empties the dishwasher. This is a skill that can be a sort of superpower of its own, as we will see.

Rachel is in love with hunky Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding, host of the BBC Travel Show in his first acting role), who seems like an ordinary, if exceptionally good-looking and charming, sort of guy. He asks her to go with him to Singapore, to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family. He does not mention that he is a Crazy Rich Asian, but we begin to get the idea when a fellow Singaporean snaps a photo and sends it around the world in an amusing avalanche of “OMGs” and “Who’s that girl with Nick” messages. (Look very quickly to see author Kevin Kwan hashtagging away.)

Rachel begins to get the idea when they are greeted at the curb of the airport and escorted into the first class lounge, before being given silk pajamas and a suite with a bed on the plane. But she does not understand how far up in the stratosphere of wealth Nick and his family are until she visits her college roommate Peik Lin Goh (rap star Awkwafina, stealing every scene as neatly as she picked pockets in “Oceans 8”) and her nouveau riche parents. They proudly point to their vulgar furnishings. “It was inspired by Versailles Hall of Mirrors,” Mrs. Goh explains. “Or Donald Trump’s bathroom,” Peik Lin replies.

Peik Lin also explains just how crazy rich the Youngs are, and she also explains that the nice off-the-rack red dress Rachel brought is not going to make it, and offers a gown from her own closet. Rachel may be dressed appropriately for the party at the Young’s castle-sized mansion, but she is overwhelmed and, after a couple of minor faux pas (who knew the finger bowl was not soup?), she meets Nick’s family, and begins to realize that the obstacle is not the money but the mother.

Where there is money, there are people desperate to get it and keep it, and that leads to some mean girl moments at a fabulous bachelorette party and also to encounters with people who have different reactions to money — snobbery, obsequiousness, jealousy, resentment, and of course good old-fashioned greed. All of which would make a great lecture in her economics class.

Wu gives a warm, smart, sensitive performance, with a dimpled smile so irresistible that we don’t just feel Nick’s affection for her; we feel our own. It is a great pleasure to see the heroine of a romantic comedy have a serious academic position and not the usual cutesy rom-com jobs like blogger or proprietor of a bakery or gift shop. Her professional accomplishment gives her perspective and confidence and a few years more experience than the usual rom-com heroine. And it is a great pleasure to have Asian actors in such a wide variety of roles, every one specific, integral to the story, and lending the movie layers of meaning. “Crazy Rich Asians” is one crazy good movie.

NOTE: A mid-credit scene featuring “Glee’s” Harry Shum, Jr. hints at sequels, and there are two more books in the series, so here’s hoping.

Parents should know that this film includes non-explicit sexual situations, adultery, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Mrs. Young’s comments on Americans? How do you balance family obligation with individual dreams? Who are “your kind of people?”

If you like this, try: “Fresh Off the Boat” on television, starring Constance Wu, and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” starring Michelle Yeoh

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