Isn’t It Romantic

Posted on February 13, 2019 at 8:28 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material, and a brief drug reference
Profanity: Strong language, some bleeped but still evident
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealer, drinking to deal with stress, joke about getting drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, mugging, injury
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2019

Copyright New Line 2019
As they say, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature. Yes, romantic comedies keep relying on the same elements. All the Jessicas and Jennifers who star, all the quippy best friends, all the cute apartments and makeover montages, all the strolls through the farmers markets, looking through the mounds of fruit, coming home with grocery bags filled with bottles of wine and baguettes, the kisses in the rain, the misunderstandings, the initial antagonism that turns to love, the race to the wedding (to stop it) or to the airport (to keep that special someone from flying away), and all those bouncy pop songs on the soundtrack to make up for the absence of actual lines of dialogue. Why should we hear what people say to each other when they are falling in love when we can imagine it as we bounce along to the music and watch them stroll on the beach and ride bicycles and playfully toss soap bubbles or autumn leaves or pillows at each other?

We don’t go to see romantic comedies in spite of this repetition; we go because of it. Just like we play the same songs over and over, it is the very predictability we find so satisfying. So “Isn’t it Romantic,” starring Rebel Wilson, is as much an affectionate tribute to the romantic comedy as it is a parody of it. In the first scene, the mother (“AbFab’s Jennifer Saunders) of a young Australian girl is telling her that the movie she is watching, “Pretty Woman,” is unrealistic, like all romantic comedies, and, in fact, she says that there is no such thing as love. “In real life, girls like us can’t get that.” (If this reminds you of the “monogamy isn’t realistic” flashback of the romantic comedy “Trainwreck,” buckle up, because the call-outs of other movies are non-stop.)

Twenty-five years later, that girl has grown up to be Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is an architect in New York, cynical about romance and shy about standing up for herself at work. She has an assistant (a terrific Betty Gilpin of “Glow”) who spends all day watching romantic comedies instead of doing her job and a friend zone buddy named Josh (Wilson’s “Pitch Perfect” love interest Adam Devine). When she bangs her head after a mugging in the subway station, she wakes up in the hospital — and the world has been transformed to a romantic comedy, wisecracking gay best friend, meet cute dreamboat, her apartment quintupled in size, her neighborhood all bright colors, flower shops, and cupcakes, “as though a beauty filter had been applied to all of New York.”

At first she resists, but then she decides the best way to get back to real life is to create a happy ending, at first with a handsome millionaire who finds her “beguiling” (fellow Aussie Liam Hemsworth), and then with Josh, who by this time is caught up in his own romantic comedy with swimsuit model/yoga ambassador Isabella (Priyanka Chopra). The film manages to pay tribute to/make gentle fun of films like “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Notting Hill,” and “13 Going on 30” while folding in some female empowerment, too. It mostly escapes the failures of the silly “Scary Movie” franchises by recognizing that it is not enough to refer to something; you have to have something to say about it. At a brisk 88 minutes, “Isn’t It Romantic” manages to have something to say, and by the time the happy ending and yet another musical number it will have achieved what all good romantic comedies do — it will leave you smiling, and maybe a little bit hopeful about romance.

Parents should know that this film includes strong and crude language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, crude humor, brief nudity, drinking, a drug dealer, comic mayhem and violence and a mugging.

Family discussion: What is your favorite romantic comedy and how does this movie compare to it and comment on it? Why are romantic comedies so popular?

If you like this, try: “Notting Hill,” “27 Dresses,” and “Pitch Perfect”

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If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted on December 27, 2018 at 12:08 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Acohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, references to rape
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2018
Copyright Annapurna 2018

When I interviewed writer/director Barry Jenkins about “Moonlight,” we talked about the movie’s haunting score, composed by Nicholas Britell. “Many directors would use songs of the era to place the audience in the film’s three time periods,” I said. “Two things,” he replied. “First, we could not afford the rights to those songs. But more important, I believe these characters deserve a full orchestral score.”

I thought of those words as I watched Jenkins’ latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, and my #1 film of 2018. There were moments when it did not feel like I was watching the film. It was more like I was immersed in it, as though I could feel it pulsing through my veins. The entire theme of the movie could be, “These characters deserve a full orchestral score” along with the highest level of every other creative and aesthetic element available to a filmmaker, from Baldwin’s lyrical words to the luscious cinematography of “Moonlight’s” James Laxton, another gorgeous score by Britell, costumes that carry the narrative and illuminate the characters, and performances of infinite sensitivity and humanity.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” succeeds brilliantly at one of cinema’s most central functions: a love story with sizzling chemistry between two impossibly beautiful people. Stephen James (“Race”) and newcomer Kiki Layne are 2018’s most compelling romantic couple, pure pleasure to watch. Their relationship is in every way the heart of this story, the reason we feel so sharply the injustice and, in some ways harder to accept, the resignation that is the most undeniable signifier of generations of institutional racism. We see that most powerfully when Regina King, as the girl’s mother, looks in the mirror as she prepares like a matador entering the bullring for a meeting that could make all the difference for the couple. She cannot expect much, but she has to try. Throughout the movie, there is resignation and diminished hopes but there is also resilience. And “Beale Street” reminds us that undiminished and imperishable love abide: romantic love, the love of parents and siblings, even an unexpected encounter with a warmhearted landlord. There is the love Baldwin and Jenkins have for these characters. And, most of all, it reminds us that this is a story that deserves to be told with the best of what movies have to offer, including a full orchestral score.

James and Layne play Fonny and Tish, childhood sweethearts who are young and deeply in love. He is wrongfully arrested for rape by a bigoted cop with a grudge and is in jail when Tish tells him that she is going to have a baby. We see what happened before and what happens after in a jazzy, non-linear form, luscious images and exquisite performances. This film is a masterpiece, like its characters of a time nearly half a century ago, “ready,” and exactly right on time.

Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and situations, references to rape, unjust charges and abuse of the justice system, racism, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: Why does Sharon take off her wig? Why do the mothers respond so differently to the news of the baby?

If you like this, try: “Moonlight” from the same writer/director and the books of author James Baldwin

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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
Date Released to DVD: January 7, 2019

Copyright Universal 2018
Maybe Night School 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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