First Date

Posted on July 8, 2021 at 10:59 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters are drug dealers
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style violence with many characters injured and killed, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 2, 2021

Copyright Magnolia 2021
“First Date” is an unassuming indie film that seems to have spent most of its tiny budget on squibs, the little exploding doodads that movies use to make it look like people and walls and objects are getting shot. There is a lot of shooting in this movie. But, as the title tells us, at the heart of the film are two teenagers on their first date.

Asking someone out and then actually going on the date can seem like a monumental undertaking when you’re a teen and you really like someone. This movie ups the ante by creating external challenges that are as impossible as the ones Mike, a sweet, shy kid played by Tyson Brown) likes the vastly more confident Kelsey (Shelby Duclos). Seeing her shut down the clumsy come-ons from an arrogant jock just makes him even more at sea about how to approach her, even with the enthusiastic pushes from his best friend. But then, miraculously, somehow a date gets scheduled, and that would be really awesome except for one small hitch. He has promised to come pick her up and he does not have anything to pick her up in and his parents have driven off with the family car.

So, Mike buys a ’65 Chrysler, so happy to have a vehicle that he does not pay attention to some obvious red flags about the skeevy-looking seller. It turns out that the car is filled with some valuable product from some very violent bad guys. Thus, we are in for chases, cops, an elderly couple who want to re-enact an early romantic encounter, drug dealers with some internal issues, and lot of texting as Kelsey wants to know what is keeping Mike from arriving. We’re also in for some references to a book club that is reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which, and they really want to make sure everyone understands this, is not a novel but a novella.

Writer/directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp (Crosby also did the cinematography and co-edited) have fashioned a loose, episodic story held together by our hopes for Mike and Kelsey. This works better in the first half than the second, as the adventures get wilder and more lethal and the couple in the center stop being in the center. The camerawork and editing are more assured than the writing and the performances are uneven, but the film has some good moments and the filmmakers show promise.

Parents should know that this film is very violent with many characters injured and killed, shoot-outs, chases, drug dealing, very strong language, and sexual references and situations.

Family discussion: Why does Kelsey like Mike? Which of their encounters surprised you the most? Would you join a book club?

If you like this, try: “Superbad”

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Fatherhood

Posted on June 17, 2021 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
Matt Logelin became a father and a widower at the same time. His wife died suddenly after their daughter was born and he told the story of his life as a single dad in a book called Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss & Love. And now his story has been adapted into a film, with Kevin Hart as Matt, the sometimes terrified, often-befuddled, frequently exhausted, and always devoted father of an adorable little girl.

Anyone who has ever raised a child or seen a movie has a pretty good idea of where this is going. See the reference to terror, befuddlement, exhaustion, and devotion above, which every parent knows well, along with the daunting challenges of many, many diapers, installing a car seat, and trimming an infant’s fingernails. Matt also has to face the well-meaning strangers who ask, “And where is her mother?” And the most daunting challenge of all: “You just have to do what’s best for her for the rest of her life.”

Like all parents do, he makes mistakes. Probably not too bad that he has Maddy play poker with his friends. On the other hand, letting her watch an animated series because he figures all cartoons are safe is not a good idea. “If you could have had one parent,” he sighs, “I wish it could have been your mom.” And while Maddy adores her dad, sometimes she wishes for more. “Other people have more people,” she says.

Kevin Hart gives a sincere and heartfelt performance as Matt, who gives his baby Maddy two kisses every night, one from him and one from her mother. He is clear that Maddy is is number one priority and that he will not allow her well-meaning grandmothers to take over just because they do not think he can take care of her.

But he can. Yes, he has a lot to learn. He shows up at an otherwise all-female “parent” support group because he cannot get Maddy to stop crying. And then there is the issue of her hair. He talks his boss into letting him bring her to the office. And he backs her up when she wants to wear pants instead of the skirt of her parochial school uniform.

Matt has two close friends who provide some encouragement, played by Lil Rel Howrey and Anthony Carrigan, who might as well be named Comic and Relief. Hart, who usually has that role, is not an actor of wide range, but his distinctive delivery works well here, especially with the irresistibly charming Melody Hurd as the school-age Maddy. Almost as irresistible is DeWanda Wise as a charming animator who provides the possibility of some adult companionship for Matt, a prospect that is appealing and scary.

The fact that everyone who has ever had or even spent serious time with a child can predict the touchstones in the film is not necessarily a bad thing. These events are touchstones because they are universal. Matt does not struggle with them because he is a man bu because he is Matt, and because these are things every parent finds difficult, the heartwarming depiction of in this film will be touching because it is familiar and resonant.

Parents should know that this film deals with the very sad death of a mother and the struggles of a single father. The film includes potty humor, some sexual references and non-explicit situations, a child being injured, family conflicts, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What was Matt’s most difficult moment? Who gave him the best advice and support?

If you like this, try: “Three Men and a Baby” and the Bryce Dallas Howard documentary “Dads”

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In the Heights

Posted on June 8, 2021 at 2:27 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 or some suggestive references and strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking, some substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death, emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2021
Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers

Love, loss, hope, dreams, family, community, hope, darkness, purpose, dancing. Very, very specific and ultimately universal. “In the Heights,” based on what will always be known as the play Lin-Manuel Miranda did before “Hamilton,” has been gently streamlined and updated into a joyous post-pandemic welcome back into the world after a year postponement due to the coronavirus. It is touching, ebullient, timely and timeless with an irresistible cast of young performers filled with screen chemistry.

It began in the dorm room of Wesleyan student Miranda, who has said if he did not see roles he could play in the theater, he would write his own. After an award-winning run off-Broadway, with a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, it moved to Broadway itself, with Miranda in a lead role, and was awarded Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Like the original, the movie takes place over three hot summer days on and around one block of the predominantly Latino community of Washington Heights. It is a place where “You can’t walk two steps without bumping into someone’s big plans.”

There is a little bodega run by Usnavi (named after the letters his Dominican parents saw on a military ship when they first came to the United States) is played by the endlessly appealing Anthony Ramos (also seen this summer on “In Treatment”). He gets help from his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who likes to tease Navi about his crush on aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). They get a lot of support from their honorary Abuela Claudia (grandmother), played by Olga Merediz in her Tony-nominated role. Claudia is like everyone’s grandmother, doling out good food and good advice to everyone.

Also on the block is the car service owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), whose one goal is to give his brilliant daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), a student at Stanford, every opportunity to achieve success. Nina is loved by her ex, Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher in her father’s company. She does not want anyone to know what a difficult time she has been having because she is afraid of letting them down.

Both businesses are at risk as the neighborhood is gentrified and ask their owners consider other priorities. Navi wants to return to the Dominican Republic he dreams of as an idyllic paradise. We first see him on a beach like the one he dreamed of, telling children “the story of a clock that was disappearing in a faraway land called New York.”

Kevin will make any sacrifice to keep Nina in school, even though Nina is not sure she wants to stay, and she feels guilty about taking anything more from him.

Someone, we don’t know who, has purchased a winning lottery ticket for the bodega. It is worth $96,000, enough to make any of the dreams of the characters come true, or at least come closer. And, there is a blackout. All of the power goes out.

The story is told with songs and dance that are never less than glorious, especially a number at the local pool that harks back to the days of Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley, and a fair with all of the different nationalities showing off their dances. The beauty parlor estheticians form a Latina Greek chorus, and their musical number is pure delight. The vibrant energy of the film (and I do recommend seeing it in IMAX) is like a burst of sunshine.

That does not mean there aren’t struggles and losses and not all dreams come true. But that is life, and it is the life that shines through this movie that makes it one of the year’s deepest pleasures.

Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and references to other losses and struggles, some suggestive references, substance abuse, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What are the dreams of you and your family? What little details help you assert your dignity? How can we make sure no one feels invisible?

If you like this, try: “Hamilton” and “West Side Story”

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We Broke Up

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 16, 2021

Copyright Vertical Entertainment 2021
Relationships are complicated. That’s one reason we like movies, where they are generally less complicated, and give us the reassuring but inaccurate message that things work out the way we wish they would. The title of “We Broke Up” sets us a premise that looks like a romantic comedy but ends up as a bittersweet acknowledgment that relationships are, well, complicated, and sometimes it is hard to figure out what we want, much less figure out how to make what we want work with someone else’s wants.

Lori (Aya Cash) and Doug (William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place”) have been together for ten years. They have the affectionate verbal shortcuts of people who know each other well and trust each other without reservation. As far as Lori’s mother is concerned, Doug is part of the family.

And then, as they are waiting at a counter for a Chinese food take-out order, Doug impulsively proposes and Lori’s reaction shocks them both. She throws up. By the next morning, they have broken up. The timing is awkward, though, as Lori’s sister is getting married and they are expected at the destination wedding weekend. They are both in the wedding party and they decide to pretend that they are still together so Lori’s sister can have her perfect day free from any tensions or conflicts.

Of course, there has never been a wedding and very few family gatherings of any kind without tensions or conflicts. Lori’s sister is Bea (a radiant Sara Bolger), who, in stark contrast to Lori, is marrying Jayson (Tony Cavalero), a man she has known for just four month. While Lori and Doug seem stuck like bugs in amber, Bea and Jayson are impulsive, impetuous, and show no signs of stopping to think about what they are doing. The wedding is at a resort which was once the summer camp Lori and Bea went to as young teenagers, and there are elaborate plans that include a “Paul Bunyan Day” series of camp-style competitive events, except with lots of liquor. And like all weddings, there are chances to renew connections and meet new people. Doug and Lori, still pretending to be together, find themselves wondering about possible other partners.

The ambitions of the film, co-written by director Jeff Rosenberg with Laura Jacqmin (“Grace and Frankie”) are impressive, but the characters are too thinly written to support them, despite the best efforts of the actors. The contrast between the impulsive couple heading into marriage and the couple who have made no progress toward marriage or children or, in Lori’s case, a career, is intriguing but plays out awkwardly. There are moments that come across as genuine but they are surrounded by others that are uneven in tone and execution. Ultimately, like the couples in the film, we are not sure what we want for them.

Parents should know that this film has mature material including sexual references and situations, tense family confrontations, drinking, drunkenness, drugs, and references to underage drinking.

Family discussion: Are you more like Lori or Bea? What do you think will happen to them?

If you like this, try: “Plus One,” “The Five Year Engagement,” and “Table 19”

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A Week Away

Posted on March 25, 2021 at 5:39 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to offscreen deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Christian themes, diverse cast
Date Released to Theaters: March 26, 2021
Copyright Netflix 2021

An unhappy teenager gets into trouble and is given a choice: juvie or a week at a Christian summer camp. He takes the second option, planning to run away. But, and I am pretty sure this is not a spoiler, he finds acceptance and hope there and a bit of romance, too. Plus a ton of music. Some of the people behind “High School Musical” (which I unabashedly love, don’t @ me) are behind this one, too, and the musical numbers are filled with “I could do that” accessibility and enthusiasm that makes them especially inviting.

Will (Kevin Quinn) was devastated when his parents were killed in a car accident that he survived. He has no one in his life looking out for him and no direction. The openheartedness and good spirits at the camp connect to him in a way he did not expect, and he is drawn to Avery (Bailee Madison), the daughter of the camp’s director (David Koechner).

The campers are divided into teams that will be competing throughout the week. And there is a campfire, an eating hall where campers are selected to answer questions about who their heroes and crushes are, and is “The Blob,” a huge inflated raft to jump on. I mean, the kids do about three months worth of activities and interactions in one week, but then people don’t randomly break into Broadway-style music numbers, either, so let’s not get picky.

What we do have here is something there just isn’t enough of: genuine kindness. The faith themes are presented very lightly and the primary messages are universal: acceptance, honesty, and connection. Avery, whose mother died some years earlier, talks to Will about “choosing to believe” and the help she gets from her father, making clear that faith and earthly support go together. Insiders and church camp veterans will recognize some of the songs and rhetoric and the Biblical references of the names of the four teams, but newcomers, those of other faiths, and non-believers will either miss them or ignore them. They will catch some movie references, including “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” And they will enjoy the exuberance and old-fashioned fun of the cast, clearly having as much fun as the teens they are portraying.

Parents should know that the story includes two teens who discuss the loss of their parents.

Family discussion: Why did Will and Avery respond to loss differently? How did each of the characters learn something about acceptance? What advice would you give George?

If you like this, try: “High School Musical,” “Camp Rock,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

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