Needle in a Timestack

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and references to violence including an accidental death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
“Needle in a Timestack” has an intriguing twist on the time travel genre. Ever since the originals, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to “The Time Machine” and up to “Back to the Future,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “About Time,” and “Avengers: Endgame,” we almost always see time travel through the eyes of the travelers. The stories are about their goals, their discoveries, their impact. But in “Needle in a Timestack,” based on the story by Robert Silverberg, time travel is, unsurprisingly, extremely expensive, and thus available only to the very wealthy.

The main character is Nick (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and early in the film we see him at a meeting in his office, the boss and staff seated around a table in a conference room, and they are talking about ordinary business topics. But then something that looks like a virtual tsunami washes over the room. What is most surprising about it is that everyone acts as though it happens all the time. It turns out to be something like a temporal sonic boom, the backwash of some wealthy person’s time travel.

As we all know from concepts like “the butterfly effect” and many other time travel movies, the slightest difference a time traveler creates in the past can have enormous impact in the present day. Nick’s response to this evidence that someone has been tampering with time is to make sure that what he values most is still the same. And what he values most is his wife, Janine (Cynthia Erivo, and I cannot be the only person watching this film who wishes it was a musical, with both stars legendary Broadway singers). He calls her to make sure she is still the Janine he knows, the one who loves him and is committed to their life together.

There is a reason he is anxious about this. Nick and Janine were part of a group of friends in college, and Nick suspects that another member of the group, an extremely wealthy man named Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who was once married to Janine, may be using time travel to get her back, not by wooing her in the present but by preventing her from falling in love with Nick in the past. As science fiction writer David Brin says, time travel stories are all about “make it didn’t happen.”

Writer-director John Ridley gives the film a lived-in look. This is not one of those futuristic settings where everything is shiny and spotless and people wear clothes made of some fabric that has not been invented yet. Nick and Janine live in a world very much like the one we know and when we finally see how the time travel experience works, there are no fancy contraptions with spinning dials and Tesla coils. It is almost like a spa and its very ordinariness makes the story more intimate and compelling. The connection between Nick and Janine is powerful enough we think — and hope — it can survive any attempt to interfere with it. But it is clear that the tension caused by the risk of “didn’t happen” may have a destructive impact with or without Tommy’s involvement.

No one in science or fiction has figured out a way around the inevitable paradoxes of time travel, and this movie does not withstand too much attention to its internal logic. And some characters feel padded or distracting. But as a variation of Orpheus and Eurydice with some economic justice issues added in plus the electricity between the two stars (please put them in a musical together, please), its deep, unabashed romanticism makes it a worthy watch.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, an off-screen accidental death, and some mature themes.

Family discussion: If you could go back in time, what would you do? What would you change? What do you think someone else would change that could affect your life?

If you like this, try: “About Time” and “Reminiscence”

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Free Guy

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 12:05 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Language|Crude/Suggestive References|Strong Fantasy Violence)
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video-game violence with powerful real and fantasy weapons, guns, chases, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 12, 2021

Copyright 20th Century Studios 2021
In 1966, Tom Stoppard gave us “Hamlet” from the perspective of two of its most minor characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” a meditation on the impossibility of understanding the sometimes random, sometimes malicious forces of life, not as grim as it sounds. In “The Lion King 1 1/2,” Disney gave us the same story as the original “Lion King” but from the perspective of two of the main character’s sidekicks, the wart hog and the meerkat. The theme is basically building on a popular franchise, but it does expand on the story. In “Free Guy,” this idea goes further by giving a video game’s NPC (non-playable character) who is so generic his name is Guy (Ryan Reynolds) agency and that most human of gifts, the chance to grow and learn and love. Reynolds, who also produced, is never less than terrific here in a role ideally suited for his gifts. It’s easy to forget how subtle an actor he is, even in wild comedies like “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and larger than life roles like “Deadpool.” At each stage, from a one-note character barely more than some code and pixels to the first suggestions of mingled longing triumphing over fear, he calibrates with exquisite precision exactly where these nascent emotions and increasing confidence are progressing.

Guy is blissfully ignorant that his only purpose in the digital world of Free City is to hit the floor when the bank robbers, avatars of the real-world players, break in and start shooting. (Listen carefully to the robbers’ voices for some surprise appearances.) He wakes up so happy every morning we almost expect him to start singing “Everything is Awesome,” like Chris Pratt in “The LEGO Movie.” He is happy because he does not know there is another way to be. He gets up. He has some cereal and feeds his goldfish. He selects one of the identical blue button-down shirts and khaki slacks from his closet. He stops at a local cafe to get coffee. He goes to work as a bank teller, with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howrey), a security guard, and then the next group of robbers break in.

And then, one day, he sees The Girl (Jodie Comer of “Killing Eve”). She Molotov Girl, is the avatar for Millie, a gamer and programmer whose goal in the game is not racking up points, which players get from robbing and killing people. She is looking for proof that Antwan (Taika Waititi, having fun as a temperamental tyrant) the head of the computer game company cheekily called Soonami, stole the code she developed for a different game with Keys (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things,” very appealing), her former business partner. Keys now works for Soonami, with his friend and sometimes competitor Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

The avatars in the game, representing the real-life players, wear sunglasses. Guy puts on a pair and for the first time sees what the players see, a Pokemon Go-style assortment of goals and prizes and attributes. Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) has a lot of fun going back and forth between the world inside the game and the real world of Soonami, Keys, and Millie, plus some glimpses of the players behind their vastly more badass avatars. Gamers will find a lot of clever references to their world, especially the creation of a new character near the end who looks very familiar but is not fully programmed. And anyone who’s been to a blockbuster in the past few years will enjoy some surprise cameos. “Don’t have a good day; have a GREAT day.” This movie is smarter than it needs to be, and it is very satisfying to see Guy confront existential questions and discover, as lucky humans do, that it is love and helping others that makes life meaningful. It may start with as small a step as a Henley shirt or a cappuccino. All it takes is wanting more.

Parents should know that this film includes extended video-game action and violence with many real and fantasy weapons, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Which game would you prefer? What kind of game would you create?

If you like this, try: “Ready Player One,” “Jumanji” and “The LEGO Movie”

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Trailer: Cinderella — A New Musical With Idina Menzel and Camila Cabello

Posted on August 3, 2021 at 7:35 pm

Amazon Prime has a new musical Cinderella story coming in September. Camila Cabello plays the girl with the evil stepmother (“Frozen’s” Idina Menzel) and Billy Porter is the fabulous fairy godmother. But this one has a different spin. Cinderella has ambitions that have nothing to do with marrying a prince. She is a talented dress designer who dreams of a career in fashion. Written and directed by “Pitch Perfect’s” Kay Cannon, it looks like a lot of fun. (Also, I bet there’s some romance as well as all the empowerment stuff.)

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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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