Romeo & Juliet

Posted on October 10, 2013 at 6:00 pm

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the most-filmed play of all time, with dozens of versions and variations from the sublime (the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann versions, “West Side Story” and “Shakespeare in Love”) to the outlandish (the cute Gnomeo and Juliet, the robot short “Runaway Robots! Romie-O and Julie-8”) and the downright ridiculous (Norma Scherer and Leslie Howard were in twice the age of the characters they were playing).  The story of the “star-cross’d lovers” has immediate appeal — impetuous teenagers, disapproving parents, missed messages, and swordfights.  All it needs to succeed is leads with a lot of chemistry and the ability to adapt to the rhythms of iambic pentameter and the glorious language of the greatest writer in the history of English.  This movie fails on all three.  The leads have no chemistry with each other or with the glorious poetry of the dialog.  And “Downton Abbey’s” Julian Fellowes has mangled the adaptation, changing some of the lines and scenes.  It is not a terrible movie, but it is not an especially good one and with so many better alternatives it is an unnecessary one.

It begins with a useless added scene in which the Prince (Stellan Skarsgård) holds a tournament to settle once and for all the dispute between the feuding Montagues and Capulets.  It doesn’t work.  Soon a fight breaks out between the servants of the two houses that are “alike in dignity” (the play’s first scene) and the Prince is furious.  If they cannot keep the peace, there will be trouble.  Romeo (Douglas Booth), a Montague, is in love with a Capulet cousin named Rosaline.  When he finds out that the Capulets are having a masked party and Rosaline will be there, he and his friends attend the party so Romeo can see her.

Romeo-and-Julliet-romeo-and-juliet-2013-34909054-500-333But Romeo sees the Capulet daughter, Juliet (“True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld), and they are instantly struck by love.  In the play, their perfect unity is demonstrated by their first conversation, witty flirtation in the form of an exquisite sonnet.  It is one of the best-loved pieces of writing in history.  Yet this version mangles it by ramping up the intensity of the attraction right from the beginning so there is no sense of build-up.  More important, the utter lack of chemistry between the very pretty but bland Booth and the game but not up to the task Steinfeld makes us long for Bella and Edward or even Bella and Jacob.

There are some strong performances, unfortunately just making the two main characters look worse by comparison.  Lesley Manville (“Topsy Turvy”) give the nurse a warmth that is often lost in the usual caricatured portrayals.  Natascha McElhone is a sympathetic Lady Capulet and Paul Giamatti is superb as Friar Laurence.  The standout, though, is Christian Cooke as Mercurtio, whose energy is much missed once he is out of the picture.

Most appallingly, Fellowes has decided to make the text more “accessible” with some trims and edits to the language.  The slight gains in “accessibility” are overwhelmed by the loss of the music in the words and the poetry of the rhythm.  I bite my thumb at him.

Parents should know that this movie includes Shakespearean sword-fighting with many characters injured and killed, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and suicides.

Family discussion:  Did the novice make the right decision?  Why couldn’t Romeo and Juliet tell their parents the truth?

If you like this, try: the other versions by Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli and adaptations like “West Side Story” and “Warm Bodies,” a zombie romance where the characters are named R and Julie)

 

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Based on a play Classic Date movie Drama Remake Romance Stories about Teens Tragedy

Short Term 12

Posted on August 23, 2013 at 9:37 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and brief sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, references to abuse, suicide attempt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 23, 2013
Date Released to DVD: January 17, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00EOAHDT8

There is a look in the eyes of those who have seen the very worst that can happen.  Those who no longer have the blessing of living in denial.  Those who know, not just in their heads but in their souls, that the innocent can be hurt by those they trust, that their bodies, their hearts, and even their minds can be damaged in ways that leave them shattered, convinced that they will always be alone and outside the magic circle everyone else seems to know how to stay inside.  Then there are those rare souls who have traveled all the way to the end of the road of no expectations but hold on to their sense of humanity by using what they have experienced to help others.  The look in their eyes is tired, but not entirely closed off from the world.  As T.S. Eliot said in “Ash Wednesday,” the goal must be “to care and not to care.”  short term 12

The gifted actor Brie Larson captures that look in “Short Term 12,” a wise and heartfelt new film about the staff at a facility for abused, neglected, and damaged teenagers.  It has the intimacy of a documentary so that the solid, assured narrative structure sneaks up on you.  This assured feature from writer/director Destin Cretton shows that kind of understanding behind the camera as well.

Larson plays the aptly named Grace.  She is not a therapist or a doctor.  She has a more important credential, as we will learn.  Her job is to help create a space that makes the kids who have no reason to trust anyone can feel safe, despite the drab institutional setting, the almost non-existent budget, the overworked professionals, and the rules that restrict them.  How can you make someone feel safe when the state will throw them out with no support after 12 months or when they turn 18?  How do you not give up when you see this kind of damage every day?  Can you find yourself in helping others?  Can you hide from yourself there?

Grace lives with her co-worker, Mason (“Newsroom’s” John Gallagher Jr., authentically disheveled), who loves her deeply but is troubled that she cannot truly open up to him.  Remi Malek has the thankless role of the newbie who gives the other characters the chance to provide some exposition and show us that good intentions are not enough.  But Cretton handles even this character with sympathy and humanity.  Then there are the residents, including Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is about to turn 18 and leave the only home he knows, and a new arrival, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who is furious and hostile.

Beautifully observed scenes open these characters up to us, with moments of small-g grace that are more heart-wrenching than the traumatic revelations.  They seem to bloom on screen thanks to sensitive writing and gorgeously heartfelt performances.  Birthday cards.  An anniversary tribute.  A look of resignation, recognition, and exhilaration as an emergency, but a relatively and reassuringly solvable one, comes up.  A broken teenager begins to heal.  And a broken adult begins to acknowledge that helping others cannot be enough unless she does what she asks from them, and what Cretton does before our eyes: to tell the truth.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, discussion of very severe parental abuse including sexual molestation, and frank discussion of family dysfunction and abuse

Family discussion: What do you learn about Mason from his family party?  Why is the character named Grace?

If you like this, try: “Manic” and “The United States of Leland”

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

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Posted on August 20, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action and some suggestive content
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Fantasy drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy-style peril, action, and violence, characters injured and killed, monsters
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 21, 2013
Date Released to DVD: December 2, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B009AMAKWM

The first volume of Cassandra Clare’s popular YA The Mortal Instruments series has been respectfully brought to screen in another attempt to tap into the Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games/Buffy audience.  The problem is that fans of those series may find that too much of this story is derivative of themes, characters, and quests they have already seen.The-Mortal-Instruments-City-of-Bones-2013-Movie-Character-Poster-2

Lily Collins (“Mirror Mirror”) plays Clary, the teenaged daughter of an artist single mother (Lena Headey).  We first hear her on the phone, telling a friend that she isn’t going to lie to her mother. ” I’m just not going to tell her.”  This sets the stage for a story that will have Clary discovering how much has not been told to her.

She wasn’t telling her mother that she planned to go clubbing.  She finds a goth-ish sort of place and gets past the doorman with her friend Simon (Robert Sheehan), who clearly wishes he was more than a friend.  Clary sees people and symbols that no one else does, including what looks like a murder. It turns out that she sees these things because she is not entirely human.  Her mother never told Clary that she was born into a race of Shadowhunters, who protect the world from demons.  Her mother is also a Shadowhunter, who disappears after the thugs who work for the evil Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) come after her to find a special cup that is one of the three “mortal instruments” that can grant special powers.  The rest of this first chapter (the second is already in production) will consist of her learning what her heritage means as she tries to find her mother. And, in what has now become a tradition in multi-volume stories for teenagers, navigating a love triangle.

The movie benefits from Clare’s sense of humor and broad humanism, both evident here.  There are not many stories in this genre that take pains to point out that people all religious beliefs are together in supporting the work of the Shadowhunters — or that acknowledge gay characters with such unquestioned support.  Production designer François Séguin and composer Atli Örvarsson create a nicely gothic atmosphere in the midst of New York City, as Clary discovers her ability to see the other world beyond the one where the “mundanes” (humans) live.  A leonine Shadowhunter named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) takes her to a sort of Victorian mansion of a clubhouse, presided over by an Anthony Stewart Head-type named Hodge (Jared Harris), where she will be safe from demons, werewolves, vampires, and various other things that go bump in the night, due to a non-aggression pact.  And also zombies, because they don’t exist.

Clary learns that her memories have been hidden from her.  The symbol that she felt compelled to draw and redraw until her bedroom was covered with the image (as she points out, like Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), is one key. A spooky group of hooded guys with their mouths sewn shut give her a magical equivalent of sodium pentothal to help her remember.  But it is really in discovering her own power and in the intense connection she feels to Jace that begins to lead her to the answer.

As with most adaptations of beloved books, this film plays to the fans, including some scenes that could have been trimmed and assuming a knowledge of the characters that may leave audiences new to the story lacking the information they need to connect to the characters.  There are some intriguing ideas and settings.  But when it all comes together at the end in what seems like a mish-mash of “Star Wars,” “Batman,” and “Buffy,” much of the goodwill toward the story is dissipated.

Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of fantasy violence and action, though the worst of it is implied or off-screen.  There are monsters of many different kinds and some gruesome and disturbing images.  There are a few sensuous kisses and some sexual references, some crude, and characters who are powerfully attracted to one another discover they might be siblings.  Characters use strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Jace, Isabelle, and Alec respond differently to Clary?  How did Clary’s ideas about herself and her mother change as she was able to remember more?

If you like this, try: the books by Cassandra Clare and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Stories about Teens

Kick-Ass 2

Posted on August 15, 2013 at 6:00 pm

kick-ass-2-poster1The first Kick-Ass was entertaining as an over-the-top response to true-blue superhero movies.  The Dark Knight might think he’s angsty and tortured and tough, but he has nothing on the merry band of misfits who form a sort of Justice League on crack, featuring an 11-year-old known as Hit Girl who was raised to be the world’s greatest assassin.

It is less entertaining this time.  The lines have already been crossed, the 11-year-old is now 15, and all that’s left is to add a few new characters and a lot more violence.  There are some interesting ideas, but mostly it’s just a bloodbath.

The first movie ended with Dave (Aaron Tayl0r-Johnson), who has assumed the identity of a superhero (without any superpowers) named Kick-Ass, killing off the crime boss with a bazooka.  Now the crime boss’ son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), wants revenge.  He has unlimited resources and unlimited fury.  He dresses up in his late mother’s bondage gear, looking like a cross between Spinal Tap and Maleficent.  He gives himself an unprintable name, builds an evil lair with strippers and a shark, and hires an international assortment of mercenaries to set himself up as a super-villain.

Meanwhile, and this is the interesting part, it turns out that even knowing dozens of ways to kill a bad guy, with his own finger if necessary, Mindy/Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) cannot escape a little bit of an adolescent identity crisis.  Though she confidently assures Dave that Kick-Ass is his real identity and it is being Dave that is the mask, when her cop guardian (an underused Morris Chestnut) makes her promise to be a normal highschool freshman, she decides to give it a try.  A section of the movie is like Buffy crossed with “Mean Girls” as she is taken in by her high school’s Plastics and there is a funny scene where she tries out for Dance Squad by imaging herself in a ninja fight.  But, as we all know only too well, the evil in high school is worse than any super-villain, and Mindy, like Dave, will learn what her real identity is.

Over and over, characters tell us that what they are going through is real life, not a comic book.  That gets as tiresome as the over-the-top carnage and efforts to shock.  Writer-director Jeff Wadlow, taking over for Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, fumbles the eternal challenge of a sequel, keeping it enough like the first to deliver what the audience expects while taking it in new directions to make it surprising.  His biggest mistake is in overlooking the obvious — this movie belongs to Hit Girl.  Every time she is off the screen, it’s like the projector bulb fades.

Parents should know that this is borderline NC-17, an exceptionally violent film with very graphic and disturbing images and sounds, massive destruction, and many injuries and deaths.  It also includes exceptionally raw and crude language (a running joke has Mindy filling more than one swear jar), sexual references, and explicit sexual situations and nudity.

Family discussion:  Was Dave responsible for what happened to his father?  What is the difference between Dave and his friends and vigilantes?

If you like this, try: the original film and the comics by Mark Miller and John Romita, Jr.

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Action/Adventure Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Crime Fantasy Series/Sequel Stories about Teens Superhero

“Standing Up” — Exclusive Clip of a New Film Based on “The Goats”

Posted on August 8, 2013 at 8:00 am

“Standing Up” is a new movie based on Brock Cole’s popular YA novel, The Goats.  It is about an 11-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl (Chandler Canterbury and Annalise Basso) who are ostracized by their peers at summer camp are the victims of a vicious prank, left on an island with no clothes.  They decide not to return to camp to face more humiliation.  Instead, they run away.   Their three-day journey brings new experiences and despite a traumatic encounter, they help each other overcome adversity, forming a unique bond that helps them lead to a path of self-discovery. Val Kilmer and Rhada Mitchell co-star.

We are lucky to be able to share an exclusive clip.

It opens in theaters August 16, 2013, and will be available on DVD/Blu-ray (Exclusively at Wal-Mart) and on VOD on August 20, 2013.

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