Bathtubs Over Broadway

Posted on December 16, 2018 at 11:08 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018

Copyright 2018 Focus Features
There are really three stories in this adorably engaging documentary about “industrial musicals,” the wildly elaborate in-house productions big corporations used to motivate their employees in the 1950’s-70’s. The first is the story of our guide to this world, Steve Young, a writer for David Letterman’s Late Show who describes himself as comedically “damaged” after years of evaluating everything in the world as comedy material. There was almost nothing that made him laugh anymore. The best he could muster was an analytic, “that’s funny.” “We’ve become hard laughs,” he tells us. Over the course of the film, he will lose the job he has had for two decades when Letterman decides to retire. The second, as in many documentaries, is the story of a tiny sub-culture of people who are deeply passionate about something the rest of the world considers odd or quirky or has never heard of. This one lives “at the far horizon where the adjectives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t apply anymore.” Young may have found them as something to laugh at but he soon develops affection and then passion for them, and by the end of the movie, we can understand why and feel some of it ourselves.

“How can there be something so large and so crazy in the world that we had no idea of?” Young asks. But the answer we get is to a different question: How can an “eccentric adventure” soothe and enlarge a “comedy-damaged” soul? By the end of the film, Young tells us that delving into this odd world has “opened up my ability to be receptive to people.” Anyone he meets can have this kind of history.

And the third is the story of the musicals themselves, often produced, directed, and performed by actual or future Broadway stars, making a very good living doing something they loved and could learn from instead of waiting tables. Just to give you an idea: one of these musicals had a budget of three million dollars. The original production of “My Fair Lady,” which opened the same season on Broadway, had a budget of $466,000. Were they works of art? Well, no, they had singing and dancing spark plugs and ballads about toilets and an opera about spaghetti sauce called “Raguletto.” But they were very professionally done, often quite clever, astonishingly elaborate, and in their own way artifacts of an era of corporate optimism that saw endless possibilities for itself as providers of consumer goods and great jobs. Of course those jobs were for white males, and the glimpses we get of the audience, all wearing near-identical suits and ties.

“I played a trick on history,” Young tells us. These shows were created for the most specific of audiences and were never intended to be seen by outsiders. The biggest surprise is that these most commercial of enterprises are so free from any kind of cynicism. There’s an innocence about them because they come from the post-WWII era, when America seemed unbeatable, and technology seemed thrilling. The “man in a grey flannel suit” corporate employees were “being shown a version of their world where they’re heroes.” If a marvelous new substance called silicone had 180 uses, why not create a song about it? What better way to introduce fabulous new products to the sales team than a catchy musical number? It may have been the “strangest dead end of show business,” with the idea of “What shouldn’t we write a musical about? Let’s write it and make it good and not let anyone see it!” But companies with lavish budgets created souvenir records for their employees to take home and that is how Young began to discover this world of unseen, un heard entertainment. Over the course of the film he tracks down some of the creators and performers, including Susan Stroman (“The Producers”), who explains that she learned a lot from choreographing industrial shows, Martin Short and Florence Henderson, who talk about the pleasures of performing for wildly enthusiastic audiences (Henderson compares it to a revival meeting), and composer Sid Siegel, who specialized in industrial musicals — and who kept a treasure trove of an archive. They were “selling Tupperware but also selling America,” and their unabashed boosterism makes it impossible to be snarky or condescending, leaving us entertained, and perhaps a little wistful.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language and a sad death.

Family discussion: If you were going to create a musical about your job or school, what would you sing about? Which production was your favorite?

If you like this, try: the shows by Sheldon Harnick, Chita Rivera, and Martin Short, and the book by Steve Young. Some of the songs are available, too.

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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

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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Action/Adventure Based on a book Fantasy movie review Movies Movies Romance Stories about Teens

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

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. 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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Ben is Back

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie, drug dealing, drug use, overdoses
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018

Copyright Lionsgate 2018
Movies about families struggling with substance abuse, like real life struggles, generally follow the same pattern. A family member gets involved with drugs (or alcohol or some other addiction) and then there is the horrified realization of how serious the problem is, hope, betrayal, hope, back-sliding, incalculable damage to other family members, anger, recriminations, tears, hope, more back-sliding, maybe some more hope. We saw that most recently in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the joint memoirs of a father and son. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,””What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) wisely takes a different approach in “Ben is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea,” “Boy Erased”).

As he explained to me in an interview, Hedges has always been fascinated by the story of Orpheus, who followed the woman he loved into Hades to try to save her. As the title tells us, this movie begins when Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home just before Christmas. We learn everything that the typical substance abuse movie takes two hours to cover in the first few minutes, from the very different reactions of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is overjoyed to see him and his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), who is furious and horrified. (Nice Christmas-y names, there, Holly and Ivy). And then we see that Holly may be happy to have Ben home, but she has not forgotten who he is — she immediately empties out the medicine cabinet and hides her jewelry.

He says he got permission from the residential rehab program. It is probably not true, but what can a mother do? She wants it to be true so badly. She wants him to be home and to want to be home. And it is Christmas. Holly’s husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the father of her two younger children, does not want Ben to be there. Holly persuades him to give Ben (another) chance.

And then, she must follow him into Hades. An incursion from Ben’s old life in the underworld of drug abuse means that Ben must visit many of his former contacts, and Holly insists on going with him. She may have thought she knew and had experienced the worst, that she knows how far she can go, how far she is willing to go, but she will learn that none of that is true.

Hedges, as always, approaches his characters with a deep, tenderhearted humanity. He is clear-eyed about the genuine villains in this story, including those who make and sell legal opiates, and he recognizes the mistakes even well-meaning, attentive, caring people make. He also understands how family dynamics curb and enable abuse, and how abuse distorts and damages everyone in the substance abuser’s orbit. But he has sympathy for addicts and their families, acknowledging their mistakes and their struggles but always wanting the best for them.

We go backwards through Ben’s life (and Holly’s), meeting people who used with him and people who used him. We see how he first got hooked, one of the movie’s most powerful moments as Holly confronts the now-pathetic culprit in a shopping mall food court. We see the collateral damage, the grieving mother, the near-destroyed friend. And, paraphrasing the words of the old public service ad, we know what it did to Ben, but does Holly know what it is doing to her?

Roberts, who has always been one of the most expressive of actors, gives one of her all-time best performances here. From the film’s very first moment, as she persuades her younger children to do something with a small, seemingly harmless bribe, we see how much of her energy and focus is on managing the world for the people she loves. As she and Ben are driving through their own version of Hades, she keeps assuring her family that everything is fine and that she and Ben will be home soon. It is as though she thinks that if she can only persuade everyone, she can will it into being. The skill of this movie is that while it is clear she cannot, we wish she could.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of drug abuse, overdoses, rehab, drug dealing, sexual references, sad offscreen death, and very strong language.

Family discussion: How is this different from other stories of substance abuse? What do we learn from the scene in the food court? Why can’t Holly tell her family the truth?

If you like this, try: “Beautiful Boy” and “Flight”

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Mary Queen of Scots

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:31 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence and sexuality
Profanity: Some language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including armed battles and beheading
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018

Copyright 2018 Focus Pictures
Gorgeous production values, magnificent costumes, a gripping historical rivalry that lasted a quarter century and ended with a beheading, and two fierce, beautiful, endlessly talented actresses giving it everything they’ve got — that takes us pretty far, but it cannot make up for a script that reduces the story of the class between two of the most powerful rules in history to a spat between mean girls over who has the cutest boyfriend.

Okay, not that bad. But it is a real shame to take the story of these two women and limit the focus to their rivalry. Queen Elizabeth gave her name to an age that included innovative and very successful economic policies, resolved irreconcilable religious divisions that began when her father, Henry VIII, left the Catholic church and established the Church of England and led to decades of bloody conflict, defeated the Spanish Armada, oversaw historical world exploration (and colonization), and presided over a golden age of culture that included the greatest author in the history of the English language. Mary, Queen of Scots was able to maintain her throne for a remarkable time given the constant attacks and efforts to undermine and betray her. But too much of this film is focused on their rivalry even though (or maybe because) they were facing very similar challenges.

Saoirse Ronan is superbly regal as Mary, fire to Elizabeth’s ice. She is fierce and fearless, leading her troops into battle and confronting those who would question her fitness or her right to serve as a matter of law, divine and mortal. Having been married off to another ruler, the king of France, who died, leaving her with no place in the French court, she makes a triumphant return to Scotland, kissing the ground as she arrives to take the throne that had been occupied by her half-brother.

Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth, canny, decisive, often imperious, but also afraid — of the threats within her own court and of her cousin Mary, whose legal claim, ties to the Catholic church, and personal appeal made her jealous and uncharacteristically insecure. Co-screenwriter Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) has a feel for the ruthlessness of courtiers jousting for power and director Josie Rourke, with a background in theater, is well suited to the pomp and, well, theatricality of the courts. Mary’s looks like a castle version of the Scottish countryside, spare and craggy, while Elizabeth’s is luxurious and draped with tapestries. In real life, the two women never met, but that isn’t very cinematic, so there is a strikingly choreographed meeting here, the two queens separated by a maze of fluttering linens. If the substance of the story matched the look of it, this movie could have done justice to two of history’s most fascinating and transformative characters.

Parents should know that this film has peril and violence including armed battles and beheading, sexual references and explicit situations, and medical issues.

Family discussion: Who was the better leader? How did being women affect the way Mary and Elizabeth saw themselves? Why couldn’t Elizabeth trust Mary?

If you like this, try: “Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Elizabeth,” and “The Young Victoria”

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