Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

Posted on October 6, 2016 at 5:53 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor throughout, language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking (adult)
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, sad off-screen death of a child, parental abandonment and marital break-up, cartoonishly exaggerated adult villains, some misbehavior including vandalism and mayhem
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 7, 2016
Date Released to DVD: January 2, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTHWXX4
Copyright Lionsgate 2016
Copyright Lionsgate 2016

This just might be the most accurate movie title of all time. Middle school is pretty much the worst years of everyone’s life. Terrible stress and tragedy happens at all ages, but it is the years from 12 to 14 where the internal turmoil and agonizing uncertainty are so acute that we still wince remembering them decades later. This film, based on the series of books by mega-bestselling author James Patterson (with Chris Tebbetts and illustrations by Laura Park) has some delightfully satisfying moments of fantasy revenge against a tyrannical, rules-obssessed principal and a borderline-abusive potential stepfather. But it sneaks in some quietly touching and surprisingly wise insights about loss and working with a “new normal.” Bright direction and an exceptionally engaging cast of kids make this film a genuine fall family treat.

Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) has been expelled from two schools (we never find out why) and has just one more chance. He would rather stay home all day and draw pictures in his notebook, where he has created a whole world of monsters and aliens, charmingly animated. “There’s a big world out there,” Rafe’s mother (Lauren Graham) tells him. “There’s a big world in there, too,” he says. And it is clear that is the world he prefers.

He does not even make it inside the building, though, when he meets the new school’s Principal Dwight (Andy Daly), who cares about just two things: his rules, and the school’s test score ranking. Dwight’s rules basically outlaw anything that is fun, friendly, expressive of individuality, or likely to keep the school from the #1 test score ranking Dwight cherishes so deeply that he has cultivated a number 1 bush by topiary in front of the school. Dwight’s consigliere/enforcer is Ida Stricker (“Parks and Recreation’s” Retta). So, bright, patterned shirts, talking in the hallways, even drawing in a notebook — all banned. There’s also a school bully who threatens to give Rafe “a wedgie so bad you’ll be able to taste your underwear.”

But there are three bright spots. Rafe’s best friend, Leo (Thomas Barbusca), is always there to make him laugh and spur him on. There’s a friendly girl named Jeannie (Isabela Moner), and a kind, sympathetic teacher (“Happy Endings'” Adam Pally) who uses the Drake and the Wu-Tang Clan to teach the class about macroeconomic trends. Rafe decides to take on Dwight by breaking every rule, with Leo’s help. Meanwhile, Rafe’s mom is getting serious with the boyfriend Rafe and his sister call “Bear” (Rob Riggle in his usual role of a walking Axe body spray).

The revenge fantasy is funny and satisfying, mostly about making the pompous Principal Dwight look silly. And it gives Rafe a way to begin to make new friends, to resolve issues with the school bully, and to think through the other problems in his life.

The film is bright and fun, like its sparkling soundtrack of pop songs. The young actors are refreshingly natural and Barbusca has great comic timing. Rafe’s sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson) and love interest Jeanne (Isabela Moner) are real characters, smart and capable. When the more serious issues arise, it is organic and sensitively handled. The pranks are signed RAFE, which stands for “rules aren’t for everyone.” But this movie is.

Parents should know that this film includes schoolyard epithets, potty humor, references to death of a child, parental abandonment, and marital breakup, comically exaggerated adult villains, cartoon-style peril, and tween misbehavior including driving and mild vandalism.

Family discussion: What is the best way to challenge unfair rules? What school rules would you like to change?

If you like this, try: “Harriet the Spy,” “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and the book series that inspired the film

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Based on a book Comedy Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues School Stories About Kids Tweens

Trailer: The Great Gilly Hopkins

Posted on August 17, 2016 at 8:00 am

The classic Katherine Paterson novel, The Great Gilly Hopkins, the story of an angry foster child who dreams of being reunited with her mother, is now a movie starring Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as a kind-hearted foster mother.

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Based on a book School Stories About Kids Trailers, Previews, and Clips

Trailer: Middle School – The Worst Years of My Life

Posted on June 17, 2016 at 3:34 pm

James Patterson’s rollicking best-seller Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, about kids who decide to break every rule in their school’s oppressive Code of Conduct, is now a film starring “Gilmore Girls'” Lauren Graham. Here’s the trailer:

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Sing Street

Posted on April 21, 2016 at 5:28 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of smoking by adults and teens, some drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Bully, some fights, reference to sexual abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 22, 2016
Date Released to DVD: July 26, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01E698HZA

When you’re a teenager, suddenly, nothing you thought you knew seems certain anymore. Your parents do not understand you. Your siblings don’t understand you. Your teachers don’t understand you. You don’t understand yourself — everything outside and inside of you seems to be changing all the time.

Copyright 2016 The Weinstein Company
Copyright 2016 The Weinstein Company

Only one thing understands you: the music. For most of us, that means rock music. Somehow, those songs reach us when nothing else can. Improbably, they understand us, they accept us, and they believe in us and in unlimited possibilities for ourselves and the world we can hardly begin to imagine. That’s why the music of your teen years feels visceral in a way no other music can. No matter how much you love music you discover later in life, it is never a part of you like the music that helps you discover yourself.

“Sing Street” is the rare movie that not only recognizes and portrays this experience; it goes farther than that. It is as close to re-creating the experience as it is possible for a movie to be. Watching this movie is not like remembering what it is like to be 14 and have your soul restored through rock and roll. It is like being there, but having it all work out the way better than you could have wished.

Writer/director/lyricist John Carney, who showed a gift for movies about music and musicians with Once and Begin Again, says that this movie is inspired by his own teen years, but about what he wished had happened instead of what did. Like the main character, Conor (enormously appealing newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), Carney grew up in 1980’s Ireland, in love with the music of the era, and the soundtrack features a sensational selection from The Cure, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, A-Ha, Spandau Ballet, and The Jam, and dead-on instant classics from Carney and composer Gary Clark. Carney knows that when your feelings get too big for the song, you have to dance. When they get bigger than that, you have to make a music video. And when you desperately want to reach someone who is irresistible but apparently unobtainable, you just have to start a band.

It’s about more than music; it’s about how to respond to the toughest challenges life throws you, adolescence being just one of them. Music in this film performs the same function that the depiction of emotions did for a younger child in Pixar’s “Inside Out.” As Riley did in that film, Conor comes to understand how sadness and happiness need each other. And, after all, there’s no better place to combine them than a rock song.

As the movie opens, Conor is writing song lyrics based on the bitter fight his parents are having on the other side of the wall. They are having financial problems, which means Conor will have to transfer to a less expensive school. And they have run out of patience with one another and are close to splitting up. His new school is much rougher than his old one, both the teachers and the students. Across the street, though, there is a girl. She’s a year older than he is, which in teenage and gender years means that she is infinitely more sophisticated. Her name is Raphina (Lucy Boynton). When she says she is a model, he impulsively invites her to be in his music video (he has just seen Duran Duran’s seminal music video for “Rio”). When she says she might, he realizes that now he has to start a band.

With guidance from his older brother (a terrific Jack Reynor), who gives him albums to listen to and tells him to seize the moment, Conor puts together a band. The combination of the gritty reality of recession-era Dublin and the purity of the kids’ passion for what they are doing is just the right setting for the kinds of emotion that only rock and roll can express.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language and a racist term, smoking by adults and teenagers, drug use, some bullies and violence, and some sexual references including sexual abuse.

Family discussion: Why did Conor say he was a futurist? How did he respond to being bullied?

If you like this, try: “Once,” “School of Rock,” “The Commitments,” “Billy Elliot,” “Pirate Radio,” “We are the Best,” and the music of the 80’s

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DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Musical School Stories about Teens

Everybody Wants Some!!

Posted on March 31, 2016 at 5:10 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some nudity
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 1, 2016

Copyright Annapurna Films 2016
Copyright Annapurna Films 2016
“Everybody Wants Some!!,” the “spiritual sequel” to Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, is so much fun that it is easy to overlook how sweet it is and how smart it is. Those who are hoping for the same combination of slightly smug nostalgia, outrageous partying, smart, self-aware characters including at least one who is older than the others but prefers to hang out with teenagers, almost no grown-ups, and a superbly curated soundtrack will find all of that. Like “Dazed and Confused,” the title comes from a rock song with some smokin’ guitar licks, this one, two exclamation points and all, by Van Halen. But this film is subtler, more ambitious, heir not just to “Dazed and Confused” but also to Linklater’s impressionistic, existentialist film “Waking Life,” and even to his “Before” trilogy as well.

As in the earlier film, the time period is compressed. “Dazed and Confused” took place on the last day of high school. “Everybody Wants Some!!” takes place on the weekend before classes start at an unnamed Texas college. It opens with freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) driving to school in a convertible, blasting — of course — “My Sharona.” Welcome to 1980.

Jake is about to move into the house set aside for the members of the school’s baseball team, nationally ranked and the heroes of the school. (Linklater played college baseball for two years at Sam Houston State University.) As soon as he arrives and introduces himself to his new teammates, the dynamic that plays out through the rest of the film is established. These guys are athletes, so they are very competitive as individuals but also very aware that in order to be successful as a team they have to be competitive in a way that helps the team. Linklater and his exceptional young cast, all of whom had to audition both for acting and for ability to play baseball, perfectly capture the endless jockeying for position combined with an instinctive teamwork based on constant assessment of one another. They use a made-up word I can’t quote here to describe the way their physical and verbal interaction combines one-upmanship and more benign getting-to-know-you high spirits, both instinctively team building.

Not much happens in the movie, at least on the surface. The guys hang out and talk. There’s a ping pong game, some locker room hijinks, ingestion of various mood-altering substances, and of course a lot of discussion about and pursuit of the ladies. This leads them to several different venues and it is a lot of fun to see them adapt (including changes of clothes) as they go from a disco to a “kicker” (country music) bar, to a punk performance and finally a costume party given by the drama students.

But this is not the usual college comedy, thankfully avoiding the usual humiliation and clunky life lessons. The incoming freshmen are (mostly) smart, self-aware, and curious. The women (mostly) are not significant enough to merit much in the way of personality or storyline, and the male characters may tend to objectify or exploit them but the movie does not. They are smart, capable, looking for a good time, and self-aware, and the one we spend time with (Zoey Deutch, in a lovely performance as a drama student named Beverly) has a walk-and-talk (and float) conversation with Jake that reminds us this is a film from the writer/director of “Before Sunrise.”

The entire cast is superb, especially Jenner (“The Glee Project”), Wyatt Russell (“22 Jump Street”) as a transferring senior with a taste for philosophy and weed, Glenn Powell (“Expendables 3”) as the smooth-talking Finnigan, and J. Quinton Johnson as Dale, who is willing to explain to the newcomers what is going on.

Not much seems to be happening as the characters go from one party to another, but it does in fact cover a surprising range of ideas with a great deal of insight. It is a “spiritual sequel” in literal terms, if not grappling with then at least pondering the meaning of existence and the existence of meaning. The utterly perfect final shot brings that home perfectly.

As the characters keep changing their clothes to fit in at each venue, they ask themselves whether they are pretending or adapting. Jake talks about how each of them had always been the best baseball player at home, only to come to college and share a team with an entire group of best players. The guys think about who they are and what their goals are (hey, it’s a college movie; you know what their goal is, but there’s more there, too).

It takes place over a few days but Linklater’s perspective on existence, meaning, and the passage of time is subtly interwoven between the bong hits and the hitting of various balls. As the young baseball players reckon with their future prospects (and dream up a possible scout for the pros who could be hiding anywhere), they and we know that, like the movie itself, their time playing baseball is brief, and that’s all the more reason to enjoy the show.

NOTE: Stay through the credits to see a delightful musical number created by the cast

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, extensive partying with drinking and drugs, sexual references and situations, and nudity.

Family discussion: Did the guys’ competition with each other help or hurt the team? What are the biggest differences between what went on here and what would happen today?

If you like this, try: “Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life,” and “Before Sunset” from the same writer/director

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