13 the Musical

Posted on August 12, 2022 at 12:01 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 12, 2022

Copyright 2022 Netflix
There’s lyric in a song in the lively and tuneful “13 the Musical” that the main character and his mother sing together that pretty much sums up the most stressful parts of life. And there’s nothing more stressful in life than middle school. The mother and son sing ruefully, “It would be funny if it didn’t suck.”

Evan Goldman (a terrific Eli Golden) is studying for his upcoming bar mitzvah, or, as he says, “the Super Bowl of Judaism.” Like many b’nai mitzvot, he is more focused on the party than the significance of being called to read from the Torah and being recognized as an adult. He believes the party will establish his status, either cool or not.

Evan’s parents have just split up, and he and his mother (Debra Messing) are leaving New York to move in with his grandmother (Rhea Perlman) in a very small town in Indiana. There is no synagogue; his New York rabbi (a warm, wise, and witty Josh Peck) will fly in to conduct the service in a church. Evan faces all the pressure of starting a new school in 8th grade multiplied by the pressure of figuring out who the cool kids are and how to make sure they come to his party. This leads him to make a lot of mistakes, hurting the feelings of the not-cool but loyal friends he abandons for the popular crowd, and then digging himself in deeper when he betrays the new friends, too.

In other words, it’s middle school. Actually, it’s middle school with terrific musical numbers. The 2012 Broadway show was entirely performed by kids, even the musicians. Ariana Grande was in the cast. This version smooths out some of the storyline, making it more family-friendly and a bit sweeter. Messing and Perlman are welcome additions, but the focus is still very much on the 8th graders and their efforts to begin to navigate relationships, friend and romantic. Given the heightened emotion of that age, this film is reassuringly low stakes. A couple wants to have a first kiss. A jealous third party wants to make sure it does not happen. Evan is in the middle because either way he will not be able to have the party he wants. Kids make some poor choices but they learn to do better, starting with an apology.

A lot of the film is the energetic, witty musical numbers from writer/composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”), energetically choreographed by Jamal Sims. Every one of the young performers is a triple threat, acting, singing, and dancing, with songs set at cheerleader practice and on the football field bleachers. The storyline lightly but sincerely and authentically addresses the real issues of adolescence but it is seeing real-life kids singing and dancing with such jubilant energy and showing the skill and hard work they have devoted to the performance that are the greatest reassurance that adolescence can be survived and triumphed over.

Parents should know that this movie includes a painful divorce and parent-child estrangement and discussion of kissing.

Family discussion: How does Evan help his friends solve their problems? Why was it hard for Brett to tell Lucy he did not like the way she was treating him? Why did Archie go along with Evan’s plan?

If you like this, try: “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger,” “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” and “Better Nate Than Ever”

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Not Okay

Posted on July 27, 2022 at 5:54 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Pervasive references to violence including terrorism and mass shootings
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 29, 2022

Copyright 2022 Searchlight Pictures
The trigger warning cautions us that this film included flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikeable female protagonist. They’re not kidding. The endlessly likable Zoey Deutch plays Danni and we are shown from the very first minute, a close-up of Danni’s splotchy, teary face, where this is going. Like Danni herself, Deutch deploys her weapons-grade charm to get what she wants. Danni wants to be a social media star. Deutch wants us to see exactly how empty Danni is, how her insecurity has made her more ruthless than she allows herself to see. It’s an excellent performance.

But the character and the script are still too thinly written to sustain an almost-two-hour film, especially one that tells us up front how it is going to end. And it is a story we know already because we live in the world of social media and cancel culture. You’ve heard the expression “live by the sword, die by the sword?” That could have been coined to describe the 21st century world of social media. Have you ever heard of the Milkshake Duck? It’s a description of the lightning-fast online progression from irresistible viral sensation to controversy to catastrophe to canceled.

And yet, like Danni, too many of us still measure ourselves in likes and clicks. Danni explains, “Have you every wanted to be noticed so badly you didn’t care what it was for?” She says she wants to be seen, wants to be important, wants to have some purpose, to matter.

It turns out, she doesn’t really want to be seen. She wants to be seen AS — seen as popular, seen as successful. But not as herself, awkward, insecure, needy. She does not understand that she will be more invisible seen as something other than her real self than she was when she was an overlooked, low-level photo editor and aspiring writer.

And so, she pretends she has been accepted at a writers retreat program in Paris. She takes a few days off from work and fakes a bunch of pictures that make it look like she’s wearing a beret, visiting the Arc de Triomphe, and enjoying a croissant. It works! Lots of clicks and followers! Then she wakes up to discover that there has been a terrorist attack in Paris, at a location she had pretended to visit and everyone thinks she was there. She leans into it, accepting sympathy, writing an article about surviving trauma and encouraging others to use the hashtag #iamnotokay.

She joins a support group for people who have experienced extreme violence. She is disengaged until she realizes one of the members of the group is a young survivor of a school shooting named Rowan (Mia Isaac) who has an impressive social media profile. Danni befriends Rowan to escalate her own profile. But she discovers that some people are not who they pretend to be online. Some are even more authentic and sincere, and Rowen, an activist and poet, is completely genuine, so much so that she assumes Danni must be, too.

This seems to be the year of the fake-it-until-you-make it stories, from fake heiress Anna Delvey and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes to WeWork’s Adam Newmann and Uber’s Travis Kalanick. Danni is not based on a real person but she is based on a real phenomenon. But the characters here are just as superficially drawn as the presentational duckface posers on Instagram and TikTok. We do not have to like a character for a movie to be successful, or for the character to have a happy ending, but we do have to see a complete character and here Danni is just an idea.

Parents should know that this film deals with trauma from terrorism and mass shootings. Characters use strong language, drink alcohol and use marijuana, and have unprotected sex in an explicit scene (no nudity).

Family discussion: Who do you follow online and why? How are you different from your online persona?

If you like this, try: “Disconnect” and “The American Meme”

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My Little Pony: A New Generation

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:50 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very mild peril and tension
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hasbro
“My Little Pony: A New Generation” follows in the tradition of previous media from the world of MLP: candy colors, poppy music, gentle humor, warm-hearted lessons about friendship, and basically a way to sell merchandise. We know where we are when it begins by reminding us that it is produced by Hasbro, a toy company.

The MLP toys could have been designed by algorithm to appeal to children. Like Pokemon, Paw Patrol, and boy bands, they are all about reassuring messages of friendship and teamwork. They have an assortment of cheery colors, and personalities — well, attributes — allowing a child to pick a favorite and collect them all. They have lots of hair to play with and style plus magical powers and problem-solving skill to spark fantasy play. I remember the bride MLP that lived with a child in our house for a while, white, with glittery hair, a hair brush, a veil, a big diamond ring that fit on her hoof, and no sign of (or need of) a groom, either stable groom or bridegroom. The MLP handlers know what kids like. Improbably, the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” series was popular with college students for a while and somehow there were groups of adult male fans who called themselves “Bronies” and attend BronyCons. There is a documentary about them called “A Brony Tale.”

I prefer the flat, 2D-style animation to this movie’s 3D CGI modeling and some young fans may feel the same, but other than that it fits the algorithm nicely, with top talent providing the voices, catchy songs, and a sweet message of, no surprise, friendship.

In this iteration, the MLP have lost their magic and their friendship. The world has divided and the three groups — ponies, unicorns, and Pegasi have been taught to fear and consider themselves superior to each other, except for Sunny (Vanessa Hudgens) a brave little pony whose father taught her that all the different little horse creatures should be friends. When a unicorn named Izzy (Kimiko Glenn) comes to the area where the ponies live, everypony runs away. “Are we playing hide and seek?” she asks joyfully. But they are just scared, except for Sunny. Soon the pony and the unicorn team up to bring friendship and magic back to their world. It is cheerful and colorful and sweet as candy, with just a little bit of excitement and just enough problems to be solved with courage and teamwork.

Okay? We good? Anything else you’d like to know? Let me unpack some of the semiotics of this story for you. It is as much a sign of the unprecedented high sensitivities of our times as it is the content of the film, but the characters and messages of the film are likely to raise some parental eyebrows and perhaps some hackles as well. The pony children are all told lies in school about the unicorns and the Pegasi. The unicorns are told that the earth ponies are lazy, smell bad, and not very bight. Ponies are taught in school that the unicorns can read minds and fry ponies with laser beams from their horns. One of the parents is a war profiteer whose motto is “To be scared is to be prepared.” She dismisses calls for friendship and cooperation as “hugs and cupcakes.” Terrifying the ponies is good for her business. Another parent is a tyrannical ruler who lies to her people, telling them that she and her daughters have retained the magical powers the rest have lost. When she is found out she is derided as “phony pony full of baloney.” A law enforcement officer abuses his power. The only kind and loving adult is dead (subtly and off-screen, but absent and missed). Also, because this is 2021, one of the characters is a social media influencer, another is a hipster, and there is some hip-hop.

So, there’s a lot going on here for an animated movie about magical horse creatures. I am not sure whether this film is a reflection of the divisiveness of our times or a response to it. I do know that either way, despite the touchy times, no adults should feel criticized or diminished. Instead, they should recognize that the only message here is the real magic of trust, understanding, cooperation, and generosity.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild peril and references to bigotry, and subtle references to the loss of a parent. The adult characters are ineffectual, tyrannical or scaremongering.

Family discussion: When have you been a good friend? When have you learned that what you thought or feared turned out not to be true? How should the characters respond to the queen’s lie? How sneaky are you?

If you like this, try: the other “My Little Pony” movies and the television series — and the episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” where special guest Bill Clinton aces an MLP quiz.

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Thunder Force

Posted on April 9, 2021 at 12:10 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action/violence, and mild suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence, mostly comic but some mayhem and characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 9, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
Writer/director Ben Falcone likes to cast his wife, the endlessly talented Melissa McCarthy, as characters who are impulsive, not very bright, and not very good at reading the room, picking up social cues, or keeping thoughts unspoken. So, we know what we’re going to get from “Thunder Force,” with McCarthy as a forklift operator and Van Halen fan who unexpectedly becomes a superhero. I prefer their “Life of the Party,” with McCarthy in less of a slapstick role, but of course it is fun to watch. It takes too long to get going, with a not-very-interesting origin story, and three things are not as funny as they hope: references to 90s pop culture, questioning the sexual orientation of the heroines, and having the bad guys kill people.

There are two twists to the usual superhero backstory here. First, and most intriguingly, it is set in a world where the only people with superpowers are evil. Back in the 80s, a radioactive blah blah but it only affected those with a genetic predisposition to be receptive, and all of those people were sociopaths. So, ordinary humans are powerless against a bunch of selfish, conscienceless, supervillains who behave like the mean kids in middle school. Except instead of not letting you sit at their table in the cafeteria they throw electric fireballs that blow things up. They’re known as the Miscreants. (Great word!)

The Miscreants include Bobby Cannevale as a mayoral candidate who insists on being referred to as “The King” (not funny the first time or any of the subsequent times), running against an AOC-like rival named Rachel Gonzales (Melissa Ponzio), and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” star Pom Klementieff as Laser, who has the power of throwing electrified fireballs and the hobby of killing people.

Second, the superheroes here are middle-aged, plus sized ladies. Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) met in a Chicago school, when Emily, a brainy transfer student, was being bullied and Lydia stood up for her. They became friendship bracelet-sharing BFFs, and spent a lot of time together, including dinner with Emily’s grandmother, who took Emily in after her scientist parents were killed by the Miscreants. Emily is determined to carry on the work of her parents and find a way to defeat the supervillains.

Lydia and Emily become estranged in high school, when Emily says she has no time for anything but her work. Years later, as their reunion approaches, Lydia is a forklift operator in a Slayer t-shirt and Emily is the founder of a hugely successful company with a new headquarters in Chicago. Lydia goes to the the office to bring Emily to the reunion, is told not to touch anything, but is incapable of obeying that or pretty much any other cautionary direction. Suddenly she’s in a dentist chair-type thing with needles going into her cheeks. She has accidentally injected herself with the serum Emily has been working on for years to create superpowers for good guys. Her colleagues are Allie (Melissa Leo), and Emily’s super-smart daughter Tracy (a warm and winning performance by Taylor Mosby), a college graduate at age 15.

Lydia continues to get the injections, building up her strength, speed, and fighting skills. For some reason, this involves eating a lot of raw chicken. Meanwhile, Emily is undergoing a far less strenuous regimen, to give her the superpower of invisibility. Finally, they are ready to go on a trial run, stopping the robbery of a convenience store. At this point, Lydia and Emily prevent the thugs from stealing money but even these two powerhouses cannot prevent Jason Bateman from stealing the movie. I won’t spoil who or what his character is, but he is far and away the movie’s highlight. He and McCarthy spark off each other in a delicious manner, both with exquisite comic timing and unexpected and offbeat rhythms. Now that is a superpower.

Parents should know that while this is a comedy, there is some scary action with explosions, murders, and potential domestic terrorism. There are repeated references to the deaths of Emily’s parents. The movie also includes some strong language, alcohol, suggestive content and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What super powers would you like to have? Why did Lydia and Emily like each other? What did Emily learn about Lydia from Tracy?

If you like this, try: “Life of the Party” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”

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WandaVision — Unpacking Marvel’s New DisneyPlus Series

Posted on January 24, 2021 at 9:56 pm

Copyright 2021 Marvel

Have you taken a look at WandaVision? I’ve watched the first two episodes and I’m very intrigued. I am a fan of comics and superhero movies but I do not know much about the Wanda and Vision characters beyond what’s in the Avengers movies.

Here’s the series trailer.

And here, for those of us who are not fully immersed in the MCU, here is a deep dive into the meaning of the references in the first episode.

My friend and fellow critic Sherin Nicole wrote about Wandavision for Idobi. An exerpt:

A lot of what is most intriguing about the first three episodes of the new Disney+ series WandaVision, from Marvel Studios, is indicative of a lot of what’s wrong in America. WandaVision carries the veneer of classic TV, when everything was perfect and perfectly funny and yet we know those times weren’t great for everybody. There was something sinister beneath the surface. In that way, we suspect things aren’t so great for Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) either.

Something is very wrong in the idyllic new town they’ve moved to—we can tell because the series starts off in a The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961) world and it’s funny and it’s cute and it’s also a little bit creepy. Moments hitch, things go strangely askew, and red is the only spot of color (like a warning light or a bloody cut). The show purposefully uses one of the brightest TV shows ever made to contrast the suppurating ideology that gives “make America great again” power. And that’s what begins to make you uncomfortable—laugh track and all.

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