Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Posted on August 4, 2010 at 6:00 am

wimpykid.jpg

“Middle school may be the dumbest idea ever,” says Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), and I think he speaks for all of us. If you ask most adults whether they would rather be audited by the IRS or go back through middle school again, they’d have a hard time making a choice. No one understands that better than Jeff Kinney, whose wildly popular series of Wimpy kid books are so true to the middle school experience — and so funny about it as well — that more than 11 million copies have been sold.

The reason that middle school is so agonizing is that it is the time when we first realize that we would really like to be cool at the same time we are struck with the horrifying realization that we have no idea how to get there. It is a time of agonizing self-examination, growing uncertainty about everything we thought we knew, diminishing willingness to rely on our parents, and the terrifying conviction that everyone else seems to have it figured out. It is the time of the great hormone divide, where boys who look like they are 10 share a classroom — and a locker room — with kids who look like they could be in college. It is a time when we rethink everything we thought we knew about who we are and what we want from our friends. So much suddenly seems GROSS and EMBARRASSING. Everything suddenly seems so disgusting we end up projecting all of those feelings onto some weird object like a piece of moldy cheese, which then assumes urban legendary status with the power to cooty-fy anyone who touches it. And in the middle of this we are also expected to live through algebra and PE.

Greg thinks he understands what it takes to succeed in middle school, despite the endless list of “don’ts” he gets from his older brother Rodrick (an enjoyably predatory Devon Bostick). “You’ll be dead or homeschooled by the end of the year,” he concludes. Greg is sure that his elementary school best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) is clueless — Rowley still says things like “You want to come over and play?” instead of “You want to hang out?” and does a dance number WITH HIS MOM at a school party. But this wouldn’t be a movie — and it wouldn’t be middle school — unless Greg had some important lessons to learn about coolness, friendship, and just how much he still needs to learn.

The movie captures the tone of the books, even including animated segments featuring the book’s stick figures. Gordon has an engaging screen presence that keeps us on his side. He and Capron seem like real kids, centering even the heightened situations and emotions by reminding us that in middle school, that’s how it really feels.

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Based on a book Comedy Elementary School School Stories About Kids Tweens

To Save a Life

Posted on August 2, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Whose life does the title refer to? “To Save a Life” begins with a funeral, a tragic loss of a high school kid who committed suicide because he felt isolated and friendless. Jake (Randy Wayne), a popular senior who thinks he has it all attends the funeral, remembering Roger, who was his closest friend when they were children. Roger once saved Jake’s life when they were on their bicycles, putting himself in the path of an accident that left him with a permanent limp, and Jake wonders how they grew apart and when the last time was that he even said hello to Roger in the school hallway.

Other lives will be at risk, metaphorically and literally, as this story continues, and one of its strengths is its willingness to engage candidly and open-heartedly with the real issues that confront teenagers, giving it some heft and credibility. It also benefits from better production values than most Christian-identified entertainment, with sound, lighting, script, direction and acting that compare with the kinds of content kids are used to on television and in theaters. While some adult audience members looking for family-friendly fare may not be happy about the frank portrayal of some high-risk teen behavior, the target age group will appreciate its honesty about high school life and stress. Even more important is the portrayal of a clergyman who walks the walk, making his leadership about meaning and values and most of all kindness. He does not try to make God the explanation for everything, just the beginning of the answer. And he handles one of teenagers’ most frequent complaints about “churchy” people, that some of them are hypocrites who do not practice what they preach, in a forthright and believable manner that is genuinely disarming.

I have one DVD and one Blu-Ray to give away. Write to me at moviemom@moviemom.com with “Life DVD” or “Life Blu-Ray” in the subject line and the first to arrive will win. Good luck!

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Family Issues High School School Spiritual films Teenagers

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some scary moments and mild language
Profanity: Some mild language ("bloody")
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in peril, minor injuries, tense scenes, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse cast, strong female characters, all major characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 2001
Date Released to DVD: July 11, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B000W74EQC

Prepare for the final movie in the Harry Potter series by watching the first one again:

I loved it. And I can’t wait to see it again.

Based of course on the international sensation, the book by J. K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is filled with visual splendor, valiant heroes, spectacular special effects, and irresistible characters. It is only fair to say that it is truly magical.

Fanatical fans of the books (in other words, just about everyone who has read them) should take a deep breath and prepare themselves to be thrilled. But first they have to remember that no movie could possibly fit in all of the endlessly inventive details author J.K. Rowling includes or match the imagination of readers who have their own ideas about what Harry’s famous lightning-bolt scar looks like or how Professor McGonagall turns into a cat. Move all of that over into a safe storage part of your brain and settle back with those who are brand new to the story to enjoy the way that screenwriter Steven Kloves, production designer Stuart Craig, and director Chris Columbus have brought their vision of the story to the screen. Even these days, when a six year old can tell the difference between stop-motion and computer graphics, there are movies like this one to remind us of our sense of wonder and show us how purely entertaining a movie can be.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), of course, is the orphan who lives with the odious Dursleys, his aunt, uncle, and cousin. They make him sleep in a closet under the stairs and never show him any attention or affection. On his 11th birthday, he receives a mysterious letter, but his uncle destroys it before he can read it. Letters keep coming, and the Dursleys take Harry to a remote lighthouse to keep him from getting them. Finally one is delivered to the lighthouse in the very large person of Hagrid, a huge, bearded man with a weakness for scary-looking creatures. It turns out that the letters were coming from Hogwarts, a boarding school for young witches and wizards, and Harry is expected for the fall term.

Hagrid takes Harry to buy his school supplies in Diagon Alley, a small corner of London that like so much of the magic world exists near but apart from the world of the muggles (humans). We are thus treated to one of the most imaginative and engaging settings ever committed to film, mixing the London of Dickens and Peter Pan with sheer, bewitching fantasy. A winding street that looks like it is hundreds of years old holds a bank run by gnomes, a store where the wand picks the wizard, and a pub filled with an assortment of curious characters.

Then it’s off to the train station, where the Hogwarts Express leaves from Track 9 ¾. On the train, Harry meets his future best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and gets to try delicacies like chocolate frogs (they really hop) and Bertie Bott’s Everyflavor Beans (and they do mean EVERY FLAVOR).

And then things really get exciting, with classes in potions and “defense against the dark arts,” a sport called Quidditch (a sort of flying soccer/basketball), a mysterious trap door guarded by a three-headed dog named Fluffy, a baby dragon named Norbert, some information about Harry’s family and history, and some important lessons in loyalty and courage.

The settings manage to be sensationally imaginative and yet at the same time so clearly believable and lived-in and just plain right that you’ll think you could find them yourself, if you could get to Track 9 ¾. The adult actors are simply and completely perfect. Richard Harris turns in his all-time best performance as headmaster Albus Dumbledore, Maggie Smith (whose on-screen teaching roles extend from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” to “Sister Act”) brings just the right tone of dry asperity to Professor McGonagall, and Robbie Coltrane is a giant with a heart to match as Hagrid (for me, the most astounding special effect of all was the understated way the movie made him look as though he was 10 feet tall). Alan Rickman provides shivers as potions master Professor Snape, and the brief glimpse of Julie Walters (an Oscar nominee for last year’s “Billy Elliott”) as Ron’s mother made me wish for much more. The kids are all just fine, though mostly just called upon to look either astonished or resolute.

A terrific book is now a terrific movie. Every family should enjoy them both.

Parents should know that the movie is very intense and has some scary moments, including children in peril. Children are hurt, but not seriously. There are some tense moments and some gross moments. A ghost character shows how he got the name “Nearly Headless Nick.” There are characters of many races, but all major characters are white. Female characters are strong and capable.

Families who see this movie should talk about what made the books so popular with children all over the world. Why did Dumbledore leave Harry with the Dursleys? Why did Harry decide not to be friends with Draco? Harry showed both good and bad judgment – when? How can you tell? What do you think are some of the other flavors in Everyflavor Beans?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

DVD notes — this is one of the most splendid DVDs ever issued, with an entire second disk of marvelous extras including deleted scenes, a tour of Hogwarts, and CD-ROM treats.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy School Series/Sequel

Recess: School’s Out

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Disney’s latest release, “Recess: School’s Out!” should have a brief life in theaters before moving on to a more fitting format on video. It is not “based on” the popular television series as much as it simply is an episode blown up for the big screen. That means that it has more expensive music (the usual baby-boomer re-treads, like “Born to Be Wild,” “Incense and Peppermint,” “Green Tambourine,” “Wipe Out” and “Let the Sun Shine”) and more expensive voice talent (James Woods as the bad guy, Robert Goulet for some songs). But the plot, dialogue, and animation are no better than the low standards of Saturday morning television. The look of the movie might work on a television set, but the big screen reveals how flat and unimaginative the artwork is.

The movie begins as T.J. and his five pals engage in some last-minute hijinks on the last day of school before summer vacation. T.J. is looking forward to a long, lazy summer with his friends, but finds that all of them are being sent off to enrichment summer programs at various camps. He is not able to have much fun alone (predictable cue: “One is the Loneliest Number”).

T.J. sees something suspicious at school, and rounds up the gang to investigate. It seems that there is an evil plot to do away with summer vacation for good, so that students throughout the country will have better test scores. T.J. and his friends have to come up with a plan to rescue the school, the principal, and, most important, the summer.

At best, the movie is innocuous fun. The show’s creators have a gift for remembering details about being a kid that most grown-ups forget. The movie shows some sense of the way kids see the world, with characters like “the Ashleys,” the school princess-cheerleader types, the hairnetted lunch ladies who store the leftover chowder until September, the snively tattle-tale, and the kindergarten class, half adorable, half terrorist.

Judging by the reaction of the kids in the screening I attended, it is a crowd-pleaser, especially when T.J. and his gang use the ultimate kid weapons — water balloons, silly string, shaken-up soda cans, and a jump rope — to take on the bad guys. The movie, like the show, is racially diverse and has girl characters who are smart, strong, and capable. The kids are loyal to each other and show cooperation and teamwork in working together.

On the other hand, parents should know that the movie assumes that all children and teachers hate school and that there is nothing interesting to learn and no value from education. Adults are ineffectual, uninterested, or dim. And T.J. forces his big sister to help him by threatening to put her diary on the Internet.

Warning: the jokes are pretty vulgar for a G rating. T.J. uses the school public address system to make an announcement, pretending to be the principal, and talking about how he scratches his “big, saggy butt” once an hour. T.J.’s parents say they are going to take his temperature with a baby thermometer and some Vaseline (eliciting a few uncomfortable squeals from the audience). T.J. reads aloud from his sister’s diary, including dramatic descriptions of teenage romance.

Families who see this movie should talk about its message that kids should not worry about test scores or the future but should make time to “just be kids.” What is important to T.J. and his friends? Why does the tattletale spend all his time trying to get everyone else in trouble? Was it fair for T.J. to take his sister’s diary and let his friends read it? Encourage children to talk about their own experiences in school — and to tell you why they would not want to give up their summer vacation.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Madeline.”

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Animation Based on a television show Comedy School Stories About Kids
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