Blinded by the Light

Posted on August 15, 2019 at 5:35 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs
Profanity: Some strong language including racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 16, 2019
Date Released to DVD: November 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
If we’re lucky, some time in August, as the big blockbusters of July taper off, we get a heartwarming little indie film to brighten the end of the summer. This year we are very lucky. The film is “Blinded by the Light,” set in Thatcher-era England, where the teenage son of Pakistani immigrants heard a song that seemed to explain the world to him. More than that, it explained him to himself. The song was by someone who was not British, Pakistani, or a teenager, but to Sarfraz Manzoor, New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen understood him better than anyone he knew.

Around the same time, Gurinder Chadha, the daughter of Indian immigrants in England, was also listening to Springsteen. Manzoor became a journalist whose memoir about his love for Springsteen (Greetings from Bury Park) then inspired Chadha, the director of films like “Bend It Like Beckham,” to make it into a movie.

The character based on Manzoor is Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), who dreams of being a writer. He writes poems that he does not share with anyone, even his sympathetic teacher (Hayley Atwell). The world around him seems bleak, unforgiving, and uncaring. An anti-immigration white supremacist group called the National Front is organizing protests and Javed and his family are subjected to harassment and racist graffiti. Javed’s father is strict, holding on to traditions as he is anxious about a lack of control when he is unable to support the family. His son’s sensitivity and inclination to assimilate into English culture makes him even more anxious. Javed’s mother is sympathetic but she has to work around the clock as a seamstress to earn money and does not want to put more pressure on her husband by challenging him. Javed has one friend who shares his love of music, but his freedom and ease only sharpens Javed’s sense of himself as isolated and ineffectual.

At school he meets a Sikh classmate named Roops (Aaron Phagura) who gives him a Springsteen CD. Chadha’s endearingly cinematic depiction of Javed’s reaction to the songs — the words as much as the music — beautifully conveys the jubilant, visceral reaction to truly connecting with another person, whether it is Gene Kelly splashing in puddles to celebrate falling in love or just knowing that somewhere in the world there is someone who has seen into your deepest secret heart and understands and accepts you. For Javed, who cannot fit into his father’s notion of who he should be but is not exactly sure who he will be instead, Bruce shows him the transformational power of putting feelings into words and music. A voice that means the world to him brings him closer to trusting his own voice.

As in “Bend it Like Beckham,” Chadha’s gift for kinetic storytelling reflects the turbulent emotion of the young protagonists. There are so many lovely details and moments — Rob Brydon (of “The Trip” movies) as the Springsteen-loving father of Javed’s friend, Javed’s discovery that his sister has found her own way to be herself, and of course a sweet romance, complete with a musical number that Gene Kelly himself would appreciate. Most important, the movie shows us that the feelings and the issues Bruce was singing about in the 70’s that spoke to Manzoor in the 80’s are still powerfully speaking to us today. Just as Springsteen let Manzoor know that his feelings were real and valid and understood and could be expressed, so Manzoor and Chadha tell us that with this lovely film.

Parents should know that this film includes racist language and attacks, some strong language, family tensions, mild sexual references, and kissing.

Family discussion: What was it about Springsteen’s music that made it so meaningful to Javed? How did listening to the music give him courage? What music is meaningful to you?

If you like this, try: “Bend it like Beckham” from the same director, and the music and autobiography of Bruce Springsteen

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Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Posted on August 8, 2019 at 5:48 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action and some impolite humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language ("freakin' awesome")
Alcohol/ Drugs: Hallucinogenic pollen
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 8, 2019
Date Released to DVD: November 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Nickelodeon
Six year old Dora and her cousin and best friend Diego are enjoying their dinner in Dora’s home in the rainforest. Dora thinks the food is “delicioso!” She turns to the screen and asks us in the audience: “Can you say delicioso?” Her father (“Ant-Man’s” Michael Pena) looks confused about who she’s talking to, but reassures her mother, “She’ll grow out of it.”

This is how Dora and the Lost City of Gold, the new live-action movie inspired by the animated series “Dora the Explorer” lets us know that its Dora, is a bit more grown-up than the Dora the Explorer we know from Nickelodeon. Following the prologue, a farewell dinner with Diego as he leaves for the United States, Dora is a 16-year-old (wide-eyed Isabella Moner, still rocking Dora’s headband and backpack, still the cheerful, curious, adventuresome girl with the monkey sidekick and the handy backpack. Her parents send her to stay with Diego’s family while they search for a legendary lost city filled with gold called Parapata.

Like Cady in “Mean Girls” and Mimi-Siku in “Jungle 2 Jungle,” Dora approaches her first experience in what some people think of as civilization as an amateur anthropologist. For Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), like many teenagers, feels like high school is “a horrible nightmare” and “a matter of life or death,” death, in his view, being noticed or embarrassed in any way. He tells Dora to be cool” and “keep a low profile.” He pleads with her, “For one day, stop being you.” “Is this to fit in with the indigenous people?” she asks.

Dora is not cool and she is incapable of keeping a low profile. In fact, the opposite of a low profile. She is seen as a threat by the school’s ambitious top student, Sammie (Madeleine Madden), the kind of girl who comes to a “come as a star” costume party as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Dora also befriends a picked-on science buff named Randy (Nicholas Combe), and she happily does a dorky dance at a school party.

On a school field trip to a natural history museum, Diego, Randy, Sammie, and Dora are teamed up for a scavenger hunt. As they look through the museum’s basement, they are kidnapped and flown to the jungle, where a bunch of bad guys want to use Dora to find her parents, and, through them, find the lost city of gold. Dora’s parents explain in the first scene in the movie that they are explorers, not treasure hunters. The bad guys are not about hunting treasure; they want to steal it. They are looters, not explorers. For Dora’s parents, “the discovery of new places is the treasure.”

The teens are rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), who explains that he is a professor friend of Dora’s parents. The teens and Alejandro race toward the lost city, trying to get there before the bad guys, with many challenges, adventures, and “jungle puzzles” — and a hallucinogenic pollen-induced cartoon sequence — along the way.

As a junior-sized “Indiana Jones,” this movie does pretty well, with adventures pitched at the right level for the 7-14 crowd. The script, co-written by Nicholas Stoller (“The Muppets,” “The Five Year Engagement”) and Matthew Robinson (“Monster Trucks”) has a buoyant sense of fun and a heroine whose greatest act of courage may be the way she accepts herself and those around her.

There has been a bit of controversy about this film following a review that seemed confused about the idea of aging up the cartoon character, suggesting there was something wrong about her portrayal. But this Dora, charmingly played by Moner, is not supposed to be a hormonal teenager. She is a child’s aspirational vision of an older child, someone who has more knowledge, ability, independence, and strength. And it is great to have a movie about a teenager where the resolution does not depend on her being attractive to a boy. Which is not to say that there is no boy-girl emotion in the film; it just isn’t the point, which is just right for its audience. “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is an exciting adventure with a boots-wearing monkey, a thief of a fox (watch for a funny PSA-style disclaimer at the beginning), and a heroine whose integrity, spirit, kindness, and curiosity about the world should inspire people of all ages.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril and mild action and violence (no one hurt), some potty humor, and some schoolyard language. The characters inhale some hallucinogenic pollen and there is a teen kiss.

Family discussion: Why doesn’t Dora follow Diego’s advice in school? Why does Sammie change her mind about Dora? What would you like to explore?

If you like this, try: the “Dora the Explorer” series and “Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain”

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Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted on June 28, 2019 at 7:32 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright Sony 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.

Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.

Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.

Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.

The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.

I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.

The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.

Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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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
Date Released to DVD: September 9, 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
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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