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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Long Shot

Posted on May 2, 2019 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Constant very strong and vulgar langauge
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including drinking to deal with stress, drunkenness, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, some wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 22, 2019
Copyright 2019 Lionsgate Entertainment

Remember in “Say Anything” when high school valedictorian who had done everything right and won every prize Diane Cort was described as a brain “trapped in the body of a game show hostess?” Well, imagine her character grown up and in Washington.

In “Long Shot,” Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is Secretary of State for a dimwit TV-star-turned President (Bob Odenkirk). She is still head of the class, doing extra credit homework while she’s on the treadmill, taking brief eyes-open standing power naps, and reading summaries of popular television shows so she can make smooth, diplomatic chit chat about media she has no time to actually watch. Needless to say, she is single. And, because she is played by Theron, she looks like a supermodel, very much appreciated by the American public which, her pollster tells her, gives her their highest ranking for “elegance.” This is the American public that elected an actor who played the President on television to the actual White House, so elegance — and a possible romance with the swooningly handsome Prime Minister of Canada (Alexander Skarsgård) are real plusses with the voters, who probably think that if they get married the two countries will merge, as though they are Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming.

But the fairy tale here is more like Beauty and the Beast, if it was an extremely raunchy romantic comedy. Charlotte used to babysit for Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), who is now a shlubby but passionate Brooklyn journalist who has just quit on principle because his lefty alternative paper has been bought by media mogul and all-around bully Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis, so unrecognizable that he might as well be CGI). Charlotte sees Fred at a reception (featuring Boyz II Men, for whom they both stan). She impulsively offers him a job polishing her speeches to make them less Cabinet-officer-formal and careful and more “I’d actually like to run for President and I’m both super-competent and relatable!”

And so the out of work but highly principled Fred joins the team. Charlotte feels safe with him because they literally come from the same place, and he is able to remind her of a time when she was not as careful and not as isolated. He makes her speeches warmer and more personal. And they…like each other.

It’s funny and occasionally even sharp, but most of all it is really quite sweet. Theron is captivating as the good girl who longs to be a little less elegant and there is actually some genuine chemistry with Rogen, whose shambling demeanor she sees as refreshingly authentic. The film touches more lightly on subjects like political compromises and media pressure that we might think from an early scene of the idiot President watching himself on television in the good old days, when he only had to pretend to be the Chief Executive. The supporting cast includes O’Shea Jackson Jr. (“Straight Outta Compton”) as Fred’s loyal best friend, and their scenes together are some of the movie’s best.

There is enough sharp interplay on both current affairs and relationships to keep things moving briskly. Improbable as the pairing may be as characters and performers, Theron and Rogen have a nice easy rhythm, and it is heartwarming to see Charlotte and Fred each learn to relax a bit, her being less careful, more vulnerable, and more true to her less-than-perfect self and him being less sure of his opinions and more sure of his value.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit and gross-out sexual humor, references and situations, very strong language, drinking and drunkenness, and some slapstick and military-style peril and violence.

Family discussion: Could a candidate like Charlotte get elected?  What does she like about Fred?  Would you want to read a journalist like Fred?

If you like this, try: “50/50,” also with Rogen, from the same director

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The Aftermath

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 5:29 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Military violence with some disturbing images, brief Holocaust images, characters injured and killed, sad deaths
Diversity Issues: Post-war ethnic hostilities, Holocaust references
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: June 24, 2019

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019
The Aftermath” is the sort of soapy wartime melodrama people often think of when they complain that they don’t make movies like they did in the old days, except that it has more sex and, if you look past the steamy romance, a disturbing whiff of both sides-ism. The focus of the film is grief and the honorable work of rebuilding — literally, politically, diplomatically, personally after the tragic necessities of war, including demonization of the other side and the inevitable atrocities of country leaders sending young people to kill each other.

It takes place in Hamburg, Germany, five months after the end of World War II. The British are occupying the all-but-destroyed city. As residents comb through the rubble, still seeking thousands of missing people, and we are reminded that the Allies dropped more bombs in a week on the city than Germany dropped on the UK for the entire war, creating an uncomfortable parity. An elegant mansion is requisitioned by the occupying forces for its military leader, Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightley).

They allow the former owner of the home, architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) to live in the attic with his teenage daughter, Freda. Lewis is gone most of the time, trying to maintain order while many Germans are still loyal to Hitler and furious with the Allies and the occupation. Some have burned 88 on their arms (for Heil Hitler, because H is the 8th letter of the alphabet). Rachael spends some time with other Brits stationed there, but she is lonely and still grief-stricken over the death of her young son in a German bombing attack on England.

And then, she begins to see Stefan not as an enemy but as a human, a father, a man of culture, a man mourning his own losses, and also a man who looks very appealing as he chops wood wearing a blue sweater. They are drawn to each other because they are lonely and because each represents for the other a complete break with the past, almost a way to obliterate it.

Author Rhidian Brook based the story on the experiences of his grandfather, which he first sold as a screenplay idea, and then made into a novel while he worked on the script. The issues of transitioning from war to peace, with awkward, useless official inquiries to try to make impossible assignments of guilt, basically asking, “Just how much of a Nazi were you?” are intriguingly raised but not very thoughtfully explored. Lewis is an exemplar of decency and yet cannot comfort his wife. He admits that he has seen and done unspeakable things but cannot talk to his wife about that, either.

There is so much potential here for tying together the issues of the broken city and the broken world and the broken marriage, but instead the focus is on the forbidden romance. As enticing as the steamy love story may be (did I mention the log-chopping scene?), its failure to recognize and address the issues it passes through leave the film, like the home at the center of the story, pretty but empty.

Parents should know that this film includes military and rioter/protest peril and violence with characters injured and killed, some grisly and disturbing images, brief Holocaust photos, some strong language, explicit sexual situations, nudity, non-explicit teen sex, and drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What is the right way to treat citizens of a conquered country? How did Stefan, Lewis, Freda, and Rachael handle grief differently?

If you like this, try: “The Exception” and “Operation Finale”

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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
Date Released to DVD: March 26, 2019
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 Baldwinmy #1 film of 2018, and winner of the Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Spirit Awards. 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 Oscar-winner 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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