California Typewriter

Posted on August 14, 2017 at 6:29 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated, no adult content
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 American Buffalo Pictures

A couple of years ago, I stayed at a hotel that had a vintage manual typewriter in the lobby, with a pristine stack of paper placed neatly beside it.  I could not resist.  I rolled in a piece of paper and began to hit the keys, enjoying what pianists call the action of the machine and the memories it brought back.

Then I got to the end of the line and waited.  Although I learned to type the summer before my freshman year in high school and typed my school papers through high school, college, and law school and then used increasingly sophisticated typewriters in offices for the next five years, I had completely forgotten that it was up to me to hit the carriage return.  I reached up and swung the lever, and very much enjoyed reviving the memory of that feeling of satisfaction, accompanied by the little bell.  A computer will wait, sometimes impatiently, for you to continue.  A typewriter will congratulate you for what you have accomplished.

This captivating documentary pays tributes to typewriters and the small but passionate group who still love and repair them.  It is filled with delightful characters, and if they sometimes edge into Christopher Guest territory with their rhapsodies about the percussion and the ink flying onto the paper (the late Sam Shepard, adding an extra sense of loss to the film), or how typewritten words are “almost what thoughts look like” (John Mayer), they are still endearing and insightful.  And, as ever the voice of decency and civilization, Tom Hanks shows up because he is a serious collector of vintage typewriters and he likes to give them to friends and urge them to use them.

Indeed, I am now guessing that the Greg Kinnear character in “You’ve Got Mail” who loves his analog typewriters so much may in fact be based on the real-life passions of the man who gets the girl in the film, played by Tom Hanks.

California Typewriter is the name of the Berkeley, California typewriter repair shop that may have to close as its owner is turning 70 and business is pretty much eclipsed by computers, except for the collectors and John Henry-types.  The film alternates between the people at the store and typewriter aficionados, from a collector who literally dreams of owning one of the very first typewriters made by the man credited with inventing them to a sculptor whose medium is typewriter parts.  Ever wondered about the odd QWERTY arrangement of letters on your computer keyboard?  Did you know that typewriters created a whole new category of jobs for women, bringing them for the first time into workplaces other than schoolrooms and hospitals?  The women themselves were called “typewriters.”  There’s a music group that uses typewriters as their instruments.  And historian David McCullough, who writes his book on his old Royal typewriter, mourns the loss of typed letters, speeches, and diaries, with cross-outs and inserts. “There is value in mistakes…You see the process.”

There is a bittersweet quality to the film, which has brief glimpses of people standing in long lines in the rain to get the new iPad, and tech conference presenters chirping about algorithms.  We see the last typewriter manufacturer in the world close down, and its final 100 machines turned into a sculpture.  But the very scarcity creates bonds. “I collect typewriters,” a man with a veritable museum in his home says. “But better than that, I collect typewriter friends.”  And it is not a spoiler to note that the failing store of the title gets new access to customers from the very technology that disrupted its industry: a website.

Parents should know that this movie has some brief art images of bodies.

Family discussion: Have you ever typed on a typewriter?

If you like this, try: “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim,” with Betty Grable as a “typewriter” (secretary), and the delightful French film “Populaire,” a romantic comedy about a champion typist and her boss/coach

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The Glass Castle

Posted on August 10, 2017 at 5:41 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, child badly burned in a cooking accident, child neglect and endangerment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 11, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017
Copyright 2017 Lionsgate

In her 1986 best-seller, Necessary Losses, author/poet Judith Viorst talks about the beliefs each of us has to give up in order to move forward. The first and in some ways the most difficult is the understanding that our parents are not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that they cannot kiss all of our hurts and troubles away forever. Some of those realizations are worse than others. Most of us, I hope, do not have to give up on the idea that our parents at least want to take care of us and that they do their best. But parents who neglect or abuse their children take away something worse than food and safety; they take a child’s senses of trust and pride.

And so “The Glass Castle,” based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, begins with Walls, a sophisticated, elegant, and successful New York journalist (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) on her way home in a cab after dinner in an expensive restaurant with her fiance and his prospective client, seeing her parents dumpster diving. They were homeless.

And so, we go back in time to see her as a very young child, telling her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) she is hungry. “Would you rather me make you some food that will be gone in an hour or finish this painting that will last forever?” It is a rhetorical question. Young Jeannette (Chandler Head) toddles over to the stove to make herself some hot dogs. But her dress catches on fire and she is badly burned.

When her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson) decides to take her out of the hospital, without doctor permission and without paying. At this point, Jeannette is still young enough to believe everything her parents tell her, like “our home goes wherever we go.” Rex, probably self-medicating for undiagnosed bipolar disorder, was immensely brilliant and charismatic. The glass castle of the title was the home he kept promising to build the family, and he spent years drawing plans for it. Rex and Rose Mary were less and less able to maintain any kind of stability at the same time that the children became more and more aware of what they were entitled to expect and unlikely to get. Instead of excitedly making plans for the castle, they began pleading with him to stop drinking. And then, when he could not, they decided to take responsibility for themselves and each other.

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton worked with Larson in the outstanding “Short Term 12,” which also had themes of abuse, damage, and resilience. He is especially good here in dealing with the challenge of three different performers, some quite young, portraying Jeannette and her siblings, maintaining consistency as they grow up, but using the cinematography to help convey the journey from their glowing memories of childhood, believing in their parents’ view of the world as beneath them, to the grittier life of deprivation and uncertainty. The spot where the glass castle was supposed to be built literally becomes a garbage dump.

What’s wisest and most significant is that the film becomes more than the story of survival. It is really only when Jeannette stops being afraid to tell the truth about herself that she is able to accept the best of what Rex and Rose Mary brought to her life. As Walls — and Viorst — might agree, necessary losses are worth the pain when they lead to the freedom that only comes from being true about and to yourself.

Parents should know that this film concerns the neglect and abuse of children, parents with substance abuse and mental illness problems. It includes smoking, drinking and drunkenness, domestic abuse, a child burned in a fire, strong language, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Jeanette decide to tell her story? What was she grateful for receiving from her parents? If there was a movie about your family, who would you like to play you?

If you like this, try: “Running with Scissors,” “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” (another real-life story with Woody Harrelson as a father with a drinking problem), and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and the book by Walls

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Transformers: The Last Knight

Posted on June 20, 2017 at 5:37 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
Profanity: Strong language, many s-words and crude insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy violence, fire, guns, explosions, chases, characters injured and killed, reference to suicide
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

It is time to stop the madness. I only wish this was called “Knight: The Last Transformers Movie.” I am as happy as anyone to see robots transforming into cars and cars transforming into robots and I freely admit to tearing up once when it appeared that Bumblebee might have been mortally wounded. I’m very fond of Sir Anthony Hopkins, and I’m also very fond of Mark Wahlberg. But this big, loud, dumb, dull, nonsensical dud of a movie is two and a half excruciating hours long.

Wahlberg returns as inventor-turned-renegade Autobots protector Cade Yeager. The government has set up a special branch of the military to get rid of all of the transformers, making no distinction between the honorable Autobots led by Optimus Prime and the evil Decepticons led by Megatron. We see in a prologue set in the time of King Arthur that the Transformers go back more than 1000 years, when Merlin, who turns out to have had no magical skills at all, was given the “weapon of ultimate power,” a staff that enabled Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to win some battle with the help of a pretty impressive three-headed dragon. The staff and an amulet that is somehow connected to it will be the McGuffins that everyone will be looking for despite the fact that we never really find out what they can do.

Sure, the stunts are fun, and I especially enjoyed seeing Wahlberg leap from drone to drone like he was a stone skipping on a pond. But without a clear idea of the stakes there is no heft to them; it’s just pixels.

And the dialog — I can’t say which is worse, the painful attempts at banter (there’s an intended-to-be cute but isn’t at all riff on the homonyms “chaste” and “chased”), the exposition-heavy portentousness (“Where in Hell is your so-called magician?” “He will be here, Lancelot.” “Why do we tell ourselves these stories? We want to believe we can be heroes in our own lives.” “Do you seek redemption?” “Only a direct descendant of Merlin can wield this instrument of immense power!”), or the faux meaningful (“You are more important than you can possibly imagine”). If someone has to be spouting off idiotic explanations, though, at least most of it is in the beautifully husky Welsh voice of Sir Anthony (though his character’s ripping a page out of an antique library book is the most disturbingly violent act in the film).

Not much makes sense in “Transformers: The Last Night.” I’m not talking about why a robot would smoke a robot cigar-type sense. We expect that going in. But why would a robot want to eat a car?
And I’m talking about the basic elements that are necessary to connect to what is going on. How do you kill a Decepticon? Sometimes robots blow apart and sometimes they just come back together like in “Terminator 2.” How do we know how we are supposed to feel if we don’t know what the impact/import of a hit is? That all-powerful weapon? We never understand what it can do and it doesn’t seem very powerful after all. What is the point of Tony Hale spouting off about physics? I will note that one completely deranged moment was actually quite fun, when a C-3PO rip-off (acknowledged as such!) turns out to be the source of the dramatic organ music in one scene: “I was making the moment more epic.” A bit more deliriously loopy stuff like that would have been a step in the right direction.

What is the point of all the jokes about how a professor at Oxford should be looking for a husband? (Or a wife?) What is the deal with way too many daddy issues? Everyone in this movie seems to be a daughter looking for a daddy or a daddy looking for a daughter. As for this daughter, I’m just looking for a good summer stunts and explosions movie. Still looking.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence with chases, explosions, swords, guns, and monsters. Human and robot characters are injured and killed. Characters use strong and crude language and there is some dumb sexual humor.

Family discussion: Does it matter that Cade is “chosen?” Which Transformer is your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: the other “Transformers” movies and the television series

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The Book of Henry

Posted on June 15, 2017 at 5:37 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drug reference
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of child sexual abuse, attempted murder, suicide, medical issues, sad death, peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 2, 2017
Copyright 2017 Focus Features

I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for movies, even syrupy ones, about super-gifted kids and am generally willing to give them some leeway as metaphor or fairy tale.  So I’m okay with “August Rush,” “Pay it Forward,” “A Monster Calls,” etc.  But “The Book of Henry” crosses the line from syrupy to smarmy, and where it wanted to be endearing, it was annoying, and then infuriating.

Jaeden Lieberher, who is making a career out of playing preternaturally wise and powerful children, has the title role as Henry, an 11-year old who is the kind of genius only found in movies. Not only is he a total braniac who understands architecture, finance, electronics, existential conundrums, weapons, and engineering, he has a rapier wit and knows the difference between different kinds of tumors and can read an MRI. Furthermore, he is a near-empath who instantly understands the people he cares about. In other words, he is not a character; he is a symbol and his purpose in the story is to give other characters important life lessons.

Henry has a younger brother, Pete (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”), who is in the movie to play the role of Normal Kid. And they have a mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who is loving and devoted but irresponsible. Henry is the grown-up in the family, stopping at a phone booth after school to place complicated brokerage orders.

Let’s pause for a moment on that last point. Yes, I said phone booth. Even though the movie takes place sort of now (there are cell phones, a coffeemaker, video games, and a super-duper weapon), it has a deliberately retro feel. Henry and Pete use old walkie-talkies, barely a glimpse of a laptop (who needs one; Henry’s a walking Wikipedia). Susan is a waitress at a diner that could be out of the 1950’s, though her boss (“SNL’s” Bobby Moynihan) offers to pay her by direct deposit. You do not need to be Henry to figure out that this is supposed to lull us into cutesy-ness.

Henry has a crush on the girl next door, a classmate named Christina (Sia muse Maddie Ziegler), who lives with her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris), the town’s police commissioner. Henry senses that Glenn is abusing Christina. When Glenn’s position of power makes it impossible to protect her through official channels, he comes up with a dangerous plan to keep her safe.

To say more would be to risk spoilers, so I will just note that pretty much everything that happens after that is intended to be touching and poignant but  none of it is .   Lee Pace does his best with the thankless role of Doctor Perfect, who would make Prince Charming look like the guy who gets eliminated in the first episode of “The Bachelorette.” And Sarah Silverman adds some sass as Susan’s best pal, who joins her in wisecracks about how they aren’t rich and in getting drunk.  Christina has a lovely dance number in the school talent show.  And Watts is marvelous as always.  But the story’s preposterousness and manipulation thwarts their best efforts to provide some grounding.

Parents should know that the movie’s themes include child sexual abuse, attempted vigilante murder, and a very sad death of a child, and suicide. There is some strong language, a drug reference, and drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What should Susan have done about the couple in the store? What made Susan change her mind?

If you like this, try: “Phenomenon” and “Disturbia”

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The Mummy

Posted on June 9, 2017 at 10:41 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and fantasy violence, chases, explosions, attacks, guns, knives, murder of parent and child, plane crash, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Universal

Disney has almost all of the Marvel superheroes. Warner Brothers has DC superheroes. 20th Century Fox has the Fantastic Four and perhaps someday will make a movie worthy of them. And so Universal wanted its own universe of supernatural characters. It does not have the rights to any superheroes, but it does have the monsters, including Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein’s monsters, Wolfman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Mummy.

This film is the first in a planned series of high profile, high-budget, interlocking stories featuring big stars, big stunts, and big special effects, set in what Universal has dubbed The Dark Universe. So, get ready for an Avengers/Justice League-style series of partnerships, cross-overs, and mash-ups.

We begin with “The Mummy,” possibly because the dashing Brendan Fraser updates starting in 1999 have made the story more familiar to 21st century audiences. Of course, those films were inspired by the Boris Karloff classic. This reboot retains very little from either beyond the idea of a deadly mummy from ancient Egypt.

This mummy is female. Her name is Ahmanet and she is played with feral ferocity by the very limber Sofia Boutella of “Star Trek: Beyond.” She was once in line to become ruler of the kingdom of ancient Egypt and be worshipped as a god. But when her father had a son, he became heir to the throne. Enraged, she murdered her father and the boy and his mother and traded her soul for power of life and death. She could not die, but she could be stopped with an elaborate mercury solution, and so she had been in a tomb in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) for thousands of years until American soldier and tomb raider Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his quippy sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson) come along to release her and her curse on the world.

With them is beautiful blond archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis of “Peaky Blinders”), along for exposition, retro rescuing, and some tiresome banter about a one-night stand with Nick.

Russell Crowe shows up as well, as a doctor who is obsessed with evil, though whether for it or against it is not entirely clear. To say more would be to spoil one of the film’s best ideas.

The real stars of the film are the stunts and special effects, which are great. Adrenalin junkie Cruise clearly has a blast racing ahead of, well, blasts, in the battle scenes, and, later, zombies as well. A plane crash scene is viscerally exciting, and sets up the movie’s funniest line later on.  But it cannot make its mind up whether it wants to be a high-concept adventure, a horror movie, or a campy comedy (zombie Jake Johnson continues to be quippy).

And Cruise is simply miscast. He is too old for the part of yet another of his callow cases of endearing arrested development.  It is one thing for a guy in his 20’s to joke about a one-night stand; it is uncomfortably skeevy for a guy, however handsome and eternally young (and still able to run very fast) in his 50’s.  By the time we see where this character is going in the movie’s final scenes, it is clear that this should have been the first act, not the last, and that this Dark Universe thing is going to be a long slog indeed.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/mythological violence and peril, undead, military weapons and explosions, plane crash, some graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some nudity and sexual references and insults

Family discussion: Was Nick telling the truth about the parachute?  What made him change his mind about Jenny?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Mummy” movies with Brendan Fraser and Boris Karloff

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