Booksmart

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking - all involving teens
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 23, 2019

Copyright Annapurna 2019
“Booksmart” is the movie you hope for. Just as the summer blockbuster season charges in with with all of its car crashes and superheroes and CGI and budgets the size of a small country’s GNP, here comes a fresh, funny little film filled with heart and a bunch of instant favorite performers from booksmart and smart-smart debut director Olivia Wilde. It gives us two adorable heroines to root for, but that does not mean we don’t also root for them to get a bit of a comeuppance about their smug condescension. High school might be awful, but so is considering yourselves so vastly superior to everyone else. This movie is overflowing with goodwill toward all of the usual high school line-up, from druggie to rich boy who tries too hard, from drama geeks to jocks to skater kids to the girl known as AAA because of the “roadside assistance” she has given at least three boys.

Graduating high school seniors Amy (Kaitlyn Dever of “Short Term 12”) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein of “Lady Bird”) love being BFFs and they especially love feeling near-contempt for everyone else at school by virtue (and they mean Virtue) of their dedication to hard work, good grades, impressive extracurriculars, and acceptance at top schools. They are also irresistibly cute in the way they compliment as well as complement one another.

Molly wakes up to taped affirmations, her bedroom festooned with images of the women she identifies with: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama. She is class president and valedictorian. She will be at her dream school and her best friend will be just two hours away in the fall. Everything she has worked for has turned out exactly as she planned.

Except not. When Molly and Amy learn to their horror that the kids who partied also got into great schools, even Yale, they experience a complete existential meltdown. Their most fundamental understanding about the world and their own place in it is shattered. And so, they decide, or, rather, Molly decides and pushes Amy into it, they should make up for lost time and spend their last night before graduation having four years’ worth of fun.

They are not sure exactly what that looks like. Their matching jump suits suggest they have no idea whatsoever, but on the other hand the essentials they tuck into their handy belt bag, including Mace and hand sanitizer, suggests that they might.

They have not exactly been invited to any of the parties, so they have quite an adventure, including some stops at the wrong parties. A lonely rich kid (Skyler Gisondo as Jared) waits hopefully as no one shows up on the yacht where he hoped to host his classmates. Then there’s the drama kids, the ones who plan to spend the summer putting on productions of Shakespeare in the Park-ing lot, who of course are hosting one of those tedious dress up and guess who did the murder parties. In order to track down the party they want, they end up enlisting the help of a favorite teacher (a winning Jessica Williams, showing us how cool booksmart can be), taking an Uber driven by their high school principal (Wilde’s husband, former “SNL” star Jason Sudeikis), and pretending to rob a pizza delivery guy (“SNL’s” Michael Patrick O’Brien).

Molly and Amy take some risks, including making an effort to actually interact with their crushes. They also get high (a very, very funny sequence I won’t spoil except to say it involves stop-motion animation) and learn some important lessons about some of their other assumptions. And they have an unprecedented fight, which hurts their feelings but ends up bringing them closer.

Parents should know that this movie has extremely strong and vulgar language, comic peril and violence, and teen partying including alcohol and drugs.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Amy tell Molly the truth about her plans? Why were they so wrong about their classmates?

If you like this, try: “Superbad,” starring Feldstein’s brother, Jonah Hill

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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

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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Bumblebee

Posted on December 20, 2018 at 5:34 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action-style violence, weapons, explosions, mayhem, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 2, 2019

Copyright 2018 Paramount
You know how Transformers turn from cars into robots and robots into cars? Well, with this movie, an origin story for fan favorite Transformer Bumblebee, who “speaks” via audio clips from the radio. The ridiculously bombastic Transformer series just kept getting bigger, louder, and dumber. Roger Ebert famously called one of them a “horrible experience of unbearable length” and they got worse after that. This Bumblebee has transformed itself, kind of, into a more warm-hearted “ET” plus Herbie the Love Bug-style story with a retro soundtrack, directed by LAIKA’s Travis Knight. And it’s…better. Not great, but it won’t make your ears ring or your brain cells melt.

Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is an unhappy teenager living in San Francisco in 1987. She is still mourning for her dad, who died suddenly the year before, and counting the days until she can leave home. Everything seems an affront to her — the terrible uniform she has to wear working at the amusement park food stand, selling lemonade and hot dogs on a stick, her mother’s odious boyfriend who has moved into their home and thinks he can tell her what to do, and the monstrous unfairness of not having a car. So she spends much of her free time sulking and wearing an endless assortment of t-shirts from various edgy 80’s bands to show how righteously disaffected she is.

Meanwhile, after losing a battle to the evil Decepticons on their home planet, the good-guy Autobots led by Optimus Prime (still voiced by Peter Cullen, thank goodness) put their top soldier, Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) into an escape pod and tell him to set up a safe place on a remote planet called Earth. He arrives in the middle of a military wargame that leads to a chase, and is soon tracked down by two Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux), who permanently damage his voicebox and his memory cells. Later on, when Charlie wheedles a beat-up old yellow VW bug from a junk dealer, it turns out to be Bumblebee, and he and Charlie begin to form a friendship.

This takes us back to the first “Transformers” movie, oh, so many explosions and robot fights ago, when it was about the relationship between Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf) and his special space friend. Bumblebee’s inability to communicate, until Charlie figures out how to give him access to a radio and he figures out to use sound clips from it to “talk,” give a special poignancy to those first encounters. But that is undermined in part by subsequent scenes, which spend too much time on weak sub-plots about mean girls and the nerdy but lovable boy next door. It is nice that Charlie is very clear about setting boundaries with the boy, and he respects that. The movie could have skipped the scenes of Bumblebee inadvertently trashing Charlie’s house TP-ing the bully’s house and overturning her car, diversions that go nowhere and are not nearly as merry or endearing as they are intended to be as Knight seems more interested in the mechanics of the scene than what they add to the storyline.

All of this is of course just building up to lots more action as both the military and the Decepticons (best line in the movie is when Cena points out that the very name Decepticon should make us worry) come after Bumblebee. The Decepticons first appear to befriend the humans (and incidentally invent the Internet). So, lots of bombast and shooting and chases and explosions.

No matter what, I always enjoy seeing cars turn into robots and robots turn into cars, and I appreciated the lower-key, retro setting. If the series is not completely transformed, it does remind us why we liked the Transformers to begin with, and that’s a good start.

Parents should know that this film has a few bad words and extended sci-fi/action-style violence with characters injured and killed, weapons, explosions, and mayhem. Humans are vaporized. A positive element of the movie is Charlie’s clear boundaries with the boy who likes her.

Family discussion: Why does Charlie trust Bumblebee? Why does Agent Burns change his mind?

If you like this, try: “The Iron Giant”

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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
Date Released to DVD: March 11, 2019

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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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:10 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Sony Animation
The best surprise I got at a movie theater this year was “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” the all-around terrific new animated film that perhaps more than any superhero movie I’ve seen translates the jubilant experience of comic books to the screen. It has excitement, it has heart, it has humor, and it has a deep understanding of comics, comic culture, and Spidey himself. It also has an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. I was not excited about seeing yet another radioactive spider bite story, but this wildly imaginative film completely won me over and I can’t wait to see it again.

Just a bit of context: One fascinating element of comic books is that unlike any other story-telling in human history, they portray characters over decades, nearly a century in some cases, with different writers and artists telling their stories and alternative takes like “imaginary stories” with no canonic or precedential import. So, for example, Superman (and Clark Kent) began during the Depression, lived through WWII, the Cold War, the tumult of the 60’s, the yuppie years of the 80’s, went from being a newspaperman to a TV reporter to a blogger, has died and been brought back, has died and been replaced by an alternate version, and has been the subject of several television shows, movies, and even a Broadway musical from the people who brought another comic character to life in “Annie.”

Spider-Man has had one of the most successful superhero movie translations with three starring Tobey Maguire (the terrible third one is tweaked in this film), two with Andrew Garfield, and now another one plus the Avengers movies with Tom Holland. Throughout all of them, he has been the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” the teenager from Queens who lives with his elderly Aunt May, has a crush on Mary Jane, gets bitten by a radioactive spider, and learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Spidey is at the heart of Marvel’s re-imagining of the superhero as young, irreverent, still learning, living in a real place rather than an imagined Gotham or Metropolis, and dealing with real-life problems as well as super-villains. Memorably, he once got paid by check but could not cash it because he had no Spider-Man ID. There are a bunch of alternate versions of Spider-Man, and we get to see many of them work together in this film.

We don’t need to go into the mumbo-jumbo here, do we? Let’s just agree that multiple universes exist and that it is possible that every action or incident splinters off another alternate timeline so that if we could just find a way to hop from one to another, we could find the one where, say, Hitler never assumed power in Germany or where the government regulated sub-prime derivatives and prevented the financial meltdown of 2008. A mob boss in New York known as Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) wants to find the parallel universe, not, for once a super-villain who wants total world domination but because he wants to find the world where his wife was not killed. But his efforts open up portals to other Spider-Men (and a Spider-pig and Spider-girls) who get catapulted into this universe just as our Spidey (Chris Pine) dies (!!!), telling the newest radioactive spider-bite victim, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) that he has to carry on.

Miles can’t even manage carrying on his regular life. He’s the son of a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) who considers Spider-Man a lawless disruption and a Puerto Rican nurse mother (Luna Lauren Velez). Miles is under a lot of pressure because has just started at a new magnet school for gifted kids and because he knows his parents would not approve of the time he spends with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) tagging walls with graffiti.

The style of contemporary animation is usually hyper-reality, with every hair on every head moving and shining just as it does in real life. The style of this film is exuberantly stylized, comic-book style, and it is thrilling to see it translated to screen so skillfully. The interactions with the variations of Spidey are clever and exciting and the movie is serious about its world and its story and characters, but never about itself, which is very comic book-y, too. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the happiest surprise of this season, a gift that will tingle Spidey-senses in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and action/comic-book style violence, with characters injured and killed (it would be a PG-13 if live action), and some brief schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which version of Spider-Man do you like best and why? What do you imagine would be your parallel in an alternate universe?

If you like this, try: the live action Spider-Man movies and the comic books

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