Blinded by the Light

Posted on August 15, 2019 at 5:35 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs
Profanity: Some strong language including racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 16, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
If we’re lucky, some time in August, as the big blockbusters of July taper off, we get a heartwarming little indie film to brighten the end of the summer. This year we are very lucky. The film is “Blinded by the Light,” set in Thatcher-era England, where the teenage son of Pakistani immigrants heard a song that seemed to explain the world to him. More than that, it explained him to himself. The song was by someone who was not British, Pakistani, or a teenager, but to Sarfraz Manzoor, New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen understood him better than anyone he knew.

Around the same time, Gurinder Chadha, the daughter of Indian immigrants in England, was also listening to Springsteen. Manzoor became a journalist whose memoir about his love for Springsteen (Greetings from Bury Park) then inspired Chadha, the director of films like “Bend It Like Beckham,” to make it into a movie.

The character based on Manzoor is Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), who dreams of being a writer. He writes poems that he does not share with anyone, even his sympathetic teacher (Hayley Atwell). The world around him seems bleak, unforgiving, and uncaring. An anti-immigration white supremacist group called the National Front is organizing protests and Javed and his family are subjected to harassment and racist graffiti. Javed’s father is strict, holding on to traditions as he is anxious about a lack of control when he is unable to support the family. His son’s sensitivity and inclination to assimilate into English culture makes him even more anxious. Javed’s mother is sympathetic but she has to work around the clock as a seamstress to earn money and does not want to put more pressure on her husband by challenging him. Javed has one friend who shares his love of music, but his freedom and ease only sharpens Javed’s sense of himself as isolated and ineffectual.

At school he meets a Sikh classmate named Roops (Aaron Phagura) who gives him a Springsteen CD. Chadha’s endearingly cinematic depiction of Javed’s reaction to the songs — the words as much as the music — beautifully conveys the jubilant, visceral reaction to truly connecting with another person, whether it is Gene Kelly splashing in puddles to celebrate falling in love or just knowing that somewhere in the world there is someone who has seen into your deepest secret heart and understands and accepts you. For Javed, who cannot fit into his father’s notion of who he should be but is not exactly sure who he will be instead, Bruce shows him the transformational power of putting feelings into words and music. A voice that means the world to him brings him closer to trusting his own voice.

As in “Bend it Like Beckham,” Chadha’s gift for kinetic storytelling reflects the turbulent emotion of the young protagonists. There are so many lovely details and moments — Rob Brydon (of “The Trip” movies) as the Springsteen-loving father of Javed’s friend, Javed’s discovery that his sister has found her own way to be herself, and of course a sweet romance, complete with a musical number that Gene Kelly himself would appreciate. Most important, the movie shows us that the feelings and the issues Bruce was singing about in the 70’s that spoke to Manzoor in the 80’s are still powerfully speaking to us today. Just as Springsteen let Manzoor know that his feelings were real and valid and understood and could be expressed, so Manzoor and Chadha tell us that with this lovely film.

Parents should know that this film includes racist language and attacks, some strong language, family tensions, mild sexual references, and kissing.

Family discussion: What was it about Springsteen’s music that made it so meaningful to Javed? How did listening to the music give him courage? What music is meaningful to you?

If you like this, try: “Bend it like Beckham” from the same director, and the music and autobiography of Bruce Springsteen

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Yesterday

Posted on June 27, 2019 at 5:30 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and tipsiness
Violence/ Scariness: Bicycle accident, some graphic injuries
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 28, 2019

Copyright 2019 Universal Pictures
“Yesterday” would have made a cute seven-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live” (or, as this movie would say, “Thursday Night Live”) but it does not work as a movie. I wish I could say they ran out of ideas in the last third, but it’s worse than that. They had ideas; they just ran out of good ones. There’s a curious disconnect in watching the film between the weakness of the storyline, including a major jump the shark swerve near the end, and the imperishable music of the Beatles. Every time we hear “In My Life” or a rocking “Help!” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” we say, “That sure is a great song” and forget for a moment that the movie is not very good. Richard Curtis admitted as much in an interview on Morning Joe: “When I type and run out of ideas I just put in ‘The Long and Winding Road.'”

Jack (Himesh Patel) has been trying to make it as a musician for ten years in his small home town on the English coast. His best friend Ellie (Lily James) believes in him and acts as his manager when she isn’t teaching high school math. But he is not making much progress. He is ready to give up when a mysterious worldwide blackout shuts down all power for twelve seconds and he is hit by a bus as he is bicycling home. During that twelve seconds, somehow the world is rebooted in a slightly different form. The Beatles never existed. Some other random cultural touchstones are missing as well, including Coke. Jack, just out of the hospital and still missing two front teeth, thanks his friends for the gift of a new guitar by playing “Yesterday.” Which they have never heard before and think he wrote. And of course they love it, though one of them says it’s not up to the level of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”

Jack starts playing Beatles songs and people like them. Ed Sheeran, charmingly playing a version of himself, invites him to tour as his opening act. In Moscow, Jack plays “Back in the USSR,” which is a huge success with the crowd, even though most of them were not born when their country was the USSR. Ed Sheeran challenges Jack to a songwriting competition, and has to admit defeat. “You’re Mozart and I’m Salieri,” he says.

An agent named Debra (Kate McKinnon in a sizzling performance) arrives to offer Jack “the poison chalice” of fame and money. Jack, who has waited so long for success as a musician and performer, says yes.

This is very much a lesser work from Richard Curtis, the man who wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio,” and “Love Actually.” There are lovely moments — the first recording session, the fun of the astonishment when people are stunned by songs we all know so well they are a part of us, the fantasy of being adored by worldwide audiences, the hilariousness of playing one of the greatest songs of all time for your parents and their not having a clue. And it is intriguing to see a person of color appropriate white musicians’ work for a change. But the friend zone/romance storyline and a bad swerve at the end show that even the world’s greatest songs cannot prop up a script that outstays its welcome. The songs are all sublime, but these new versions do not add anything special.

George Martin, who worked more closely with the Beatles than anyone else, said that their charm was as important to their early success as their music. That early success gave them a chance to develop and grow and take huge risks and reflect on their experiences, all of which became a part of their endlessly innovative and ground-breaking work.

To have even some of their greatest hits all thrown into what is supposed to be one performer’s series of songs, unrelated to what is going on in the lives of the songwriter or in the world, and, to adapt the title of an ex-Beatle song, imagine there’s no Beatles, gives the music an unearned power, relying on our love for the songs and what they mean in our lives, whether we first heard them in kindergarten, at spin class, or as they first came out. That makes this story empty at its Apple Corps.

Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations and some strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Why did Deborah call what she was offering the poison chalice? What did Jack learn from his meeting with John?

If you like this, try: “Begin Again” and “Across the Universe” and the Beatles movies

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Aladdin

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 5:17 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action/peril
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/action peril and violence, attempted murder, near-drowning, discussion of sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Issue of female autonomy and power
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
It is a bit of a puzzle that a director known for dynamic action doing a live action remake of a musical animated film that was exceptionally lively has somehow produced a movie that seems bogged down, even static. The new “Aladdin” from co-writer/director Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Sherlock Holmes”) is colorful and tuneful, but for much of its just over two hours running time it lumbers along, despite its best efforts to entertain.

The original Disney animated version of “Aladdin” is one of the studio’s all-time best thanks to a wonderfully melodic score, with songs by Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman and possibly the all-time greatest animated movie voice performance in history, Robin Williams as the Genie. The mercurial Williams found his ultimate mode of presentation with the help of Disney’s top animators as the magical, infinitely malleable, cartoon character, instantly creating characters ranging from Ed Sullivan, William F. Buckley, and Jack Nicholson to Peter Lorre and a bunch of zombies, always retaining the essential heart and humor that made a fantasy come alive. (The closest Williams ever came to replicating avalanche of portrayals might be his innumerable improvisations with a shawl on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”) No live action version, even with the help of the latest CGI technology and the powerhouse charisma of Will Smith, can match the kaleidoscopic imagination of the 1992 Genie.

This version does make some substantial improvements in the story of the “street rat” who loves a princess and then, with the help of the genie in a magical lamp, pretends to be a prince so he can court her. Disney says it has the most diverse cast in the studio’s history, and it is great to see all of the lead roles performed by people whose ethnicity matches their characters, with Egyptian-born Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott, of British and Indian heritage, as Jasmine. The locations are authentic as well. Filmed in Jordan, and with the always-outstanding work of the Disney production designers, the settings are splendid, and the classic songs still sound fresh and hummable, especially “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World.” The film should really be called “Aladdin and Jasmine” because it gives the princess a full, meaningful role in the story, respecting her agency, ability, and dedication to her people. It gives her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) more agency, as well, unlike the animated character, who spends much of the story in an enchanted fog. And it’s nice to see Genie get a bit more of a story, too, thanks to the handmaiden to the princess, played by “SNL’s” Nasim Pedrad.

But the story-telling itself is foggy in this version. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the story’s villain, does not have the menace of the original. He seems young and angry, more petulant than ominous. There is a hint of an intriguing backstory for him that gets lost in the busy, “look at me”-ness of the film. A storyline about whether the Sultan should approve invasion of another country does not work well and a dance number with the Genie controlling Aladdin has too many cuts to deliver on the humor of the situation. The “Step Up” movies do these moments much better, and Jasmine’s new song from “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is outshone by the originals. A wink at the map of Disneyland as Jasmine does the ancient equivalent of Googling “Prince Ali” is out of place.

If there had been no animated version, this one would have served as an entertaining family movie. But as has happened too often with Disney’s live action remakes of its best animated films, it is just an unnecessary reminder of how much we loved the original.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy peril and violence including near-drowning, attempted murder and references to killing and to sad death of parents, action, brief alcohol, and a kiss.

Family discussion: What would your three wishes be? Remember to be careful with your words! Why was Aladdin so awkward when he becomes Ali? Why was Jafar so angry? What does it mean to be a diamond in the rough, and what made Aladdin one?

If you like this, try: the original Disney animated version and the stories of the 1001 Nights

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A Dog’s Journey

Posted on May 16, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and sad deaths of humans and animals, automobile accident, stalker, family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 19, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019
In “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, the soul of a dog named Bailey (voice of “Frozen’s” Josh Gad) was reborn over and over as we saw him (and sometimes her) with different owners, from a boy named Ethan to a police officer, to a lonely single woman, and ultimately back to a middle-aged Ethan again, now played by Dennis Quaid. Through it all, Bailey wonders what his purpose is, and learns that, like the rest of us it is to love and be loved, and to be loyal to his “pack.”

Bailey’s story continues in “A Dog’s Journey,” also based on a Cameron book. This time the tender/sad/sweet series of rebirth stories are all in the same family, as Bailey’s purpose is to look after Ethan’s granddaughter, CJ.

At the end of the last movie, Bailey helped to reunite Ethan with the girl he loved in high school, Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). As this movie opens, both Ethan and Bailey are a bit creaky in their joints, but they are still devoted to one another. Hannah’s son was killed in an accident when his wife Gloria (“GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin) was pregnant. Now she and her toddler daughter live on Ethan’s idyllic farm, which is always bathed in golden light and looks like something out of a coffee commercial. Ethan and Hannah adore their granddaughter, and the little girl loves them and Bailey but Gloria is restless and insecure. She takes the girl and refuses any contact with Ethan and Hannah. As Bailey dies, Ethan whispers that he should find CJ and take care of her.

And so Bailey is born as Molly adopted by now 11-year-old CJ (“Ant-Man’s” Abby Ryder Fortson). She has to hide the dog from Gloria, who has become alcoholic and neglectful. Molly is a great comfort to CJ, her only source of stability other than her best friend Trent, who has adopted Molly’s brother.

As CJ grows up (now played by British actress/singer Kathryn Prescott), Bailey finds a way to keep coming back to her when she needs it most.

The gentle humor in the film comes from what Bailey does and does not understand. Does understand: “take care of CJ,” “go where the good smells are,” “when Ethan crouches and throws the deflated football, leap over his back and catch it.” Does not understand: “what does shhh mean?” “why is CJ spending time with someone who is not in our pack when I have just led her to her long-lost best friend Trent (Henry Lau)?” The sweet moments come from the connections, between humans and between humans and dogs. The cute moments come from — did I mention all the puppies? There are plenty of “awwww” moments to go around, with reconciliation, support, and reunion, and plenty of human and canine characters to care for. I’m glad Bailey keeps coming back.

Parents should know that this film includes sad deaths of humans and animals, potty humor, a car accident, serious illness, drinking and drunkenness, a neglectful parent and an abusive boyfriend.

Family discussion: What convinced C.J. that her grandfather was right about Bailey? Why was it hard for her to acknowledge her feelings about Trent? Is there an animal that has been special to you?

If you like this, try: “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home”

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The Sun is Also a Star

Posted on May 15, 2019 at 6:15 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Accident with pedestrian injuries, family scuffle
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 19, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers Studios
A pair of teenagers who happen to meet on a day of great pressure for both of them are riding on a New York City subway train that gets stuck. The engineer comes on the speaker to tell them a story reminiscent of the Taoist parable about the farmer, the son, and the horse. Sometimes the very thing that you think is an insurmountable obstacle to what you are urgently trying to achieve turns out to lead you to something you could not have imagined, or even to save your life.

That is a theme in “The Sun is Also a Star,” along with the divide and sometimes conflict between poetry and science, the left brain and the right, what we feel and what we can prove, and the needs and dreams of the individual versus what is best for the family or the group — and who gets to decide what “best” means. And at the center of it is the thrum of issues of immigration and assimilation. It might be easy to lose sight of the love story under the weight of all of this, but the star power of lead actors Yara Shahidi (“Black-Ish” and “Grown-Ish”) and Charles Melton (“Riverdale,” “Glee”) and the deeply romantic direction of Ry Russo-Young, the romance is in every way the heart of the film.

Natasha (Shahidi) is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who are being deported following an ICE raid of the restaurant where he father works. The family moved to New York when she and her brother were young children, meaning that they are not American citizens in the family on which to base an appeal. As her parents pack up, Natasha goes to ICE to see if she can appeal their decision.

A compassionate case officer says it is too late for him to re-open the case but he gives her the card of a lawyer who might be able to help. Because he cannot see her until noon, later postponed to 4:30, she is stuck downtown, not enough time to go home, but, perhaps enough time to fall in love?

Natasha does not believe in love, or so she says. She dismisses it as romantic hogwash, just a distractingly poetic way to describe hormones. She is interested in data and science. If love cannot be measured and studied according to the strictures of the scientific method, she says, it cannot be true.

The person she says it to is Daniel (Melton), the son of Korean immigrants, who glimpses Natasha at Grand Central Station when he is on his way to a very important alumni interview for Dartmouth. He grabs her away from a careening car that has already knocked down one pedestrian and she accepts his invitation to go for coffee. He is a poet, a romantic, a believer in signs and omens. Natasha’s jacket has the same ancient Greek phrase that he had jotted down in his notebook that morning: deus ex machina. Literally, it translates to “god from the machine,” referring to the mechanical device used in Greek theater to bring the deity characters on stage. But it is a literary term meaning some extraordinary, sometimes supernatural or god-like force that suddenly changes the trajectory of a story, usually resolving it for the better.

Daniel tells Natasha he can make her believe in love. He begins with the famous 36 questions followed by a silent stare into each other’s eyes. She insists that it cannot possibly work, but as the day goes on, she cannot help but be drawn to him. As they watch a show at the Planetarium (perhaps a nod to “Rebel Without a Cause”), she reaches for his hand.

Their walk-and-talk courtship involves visits to each other’s families and some surprising, one might even say cosmic connections. Melton and Shahidi make a graceful transition from television to the big screen, with charisma and chemistry to spare. Their chemistry is almost tactile, with a deep sweetness. With all of their differences in outlook and situation, their shared bond as the children of immigrants, struggling with what they owe to the past and what they dream of for the future is so real to us that by the end we are holding our breath hoping for the magic to go on.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and crude sexual references, a car hitting a pedestrian, and a scuffle between brothers, as well as some issues of family conflict and the prospect of deportation.

Family discussion: Daniel’s father says that Daniel should do what is best for the community. What do you think is best for the community in that context? Can you fall in love by asking each other questions? Was there a time where what you thought was something going wrong turned out to be right? Can tragedy be funny?

If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise,” “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” and “Everything Everything”

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