Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Posted on December 21, 2017 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, b-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/fantasy-style peril and violence, characters injured, snakes, guns, fights, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2017

Copyright Columbia 2017
There has never been a more charming movie action hero than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose easy confidence is highlighted in a scene from the trailer for “Furious 7,” when his character gets out of a hospital bed, flexes his muscle to shatter the cast that covers his entire arm, and says meaningfully, “Daddy’s got to go to work.” The only thing more fun is seeing him subvert his own movie star magic, as he did with Kevin Hart in “Central Intelligence,” and as he does with Hart again in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” where he plays the video game avatar of a shy, highly allergic high school nerd named Spencer (Alex Wolff). On the outside, he is Dr. Smolder Bravestone, a cross between Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and, well, The Rock. On the inside, he is still Spencer. But this game goes way past virtual or augmented reality. Spencer and three other kids from his school are stuck in the game, and have to finish it before using up the three life bars each has been given.

Jumanji, the story of a jungle board game that becomes all too real, began as a 1981 book by author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, and then a 1995 movie with Robin Williams as a grown-up who has been trapped in the game since he was a boy. This movie pays tribute to the original in the opening scene, set in 1996, when the board game is found at the beach, buried in the sand. A boy in a Metallica t-shirt named Alex (Nick Jonas) has no interest. He likes video games. But somehow the beautifully carved board turns into a cartridge, he pops it in, and disappears.

And then we meet Spencer and three other students sent with him to detention: Fridge, a football star who has Spencer doing his homework, which gets them both in trouble; Bethany, a popular girl who only cares about her social media likes and takes a phone call in the middle of a quiz; and Martha, an anxious girl who puts herself under a lot of pressure to get good grades and mouths off to the gym teacher. Ordered to clean up the school basement as punishment, they find the game console and then disappear into the avatars they have selected: Dr. Bravestone, “weapons valet” Moose Finbar (Hart), scholar Dr. Shelly Oberon, and martial arts specialist Ruby Roundhouse (“Guardians of the Galaxy” series Nebula, Karen Gillan). They can’t get back home until they complete the game.

Director Jake Kasden balances the action, comedy, and heart and the four leads, especially Johnson and Black, have a lot of fun with the disconnect between what they look like and who they are inside. Bravestone quavers to an adversary, “I should warn you, I think I am a very strong puncher” before landing a roundhouse. And Bethany/Oberon can barely decide which is more upsetting, being in the body of an overweight middle-aged man (she needs some guidance on going to the bathroom) or not having her phone. There’s a nice twist when Bethany-as-Oberon tries to reach Martha-as-Ruby how to flirt so she can distract the bad guys, and Martha/Ruby learns that she has what she needs. Despite the best efforts of the jewel-thief villain (Bobby Cannavale) the strengths of the avatars and some unexplored strengths of the teenagers themselves help them get through the levels to finish the game. The original film was a success because of its concept, innovative special effects, and the always dazzling Williams, but this one has a smarter plot, better characters, more heart, and by the time we get to Game Over, we just might be ready to reboot and start it over again.

NOTE: The DVD/Blu-Ray release has some really terrific extras including behind-the-scenes features about the special effects and characters and a funny gag reel. Well worth a look!

Parents should know that this movie includes extended fantasy/comic peril and violence with characters injured and (temporarily) killed and some disturbing images and jump-out-at-you surprises, some crude humor about body parts and functions, some teen (adult avatar) drinking and drunkenness, kisses, and some schoolyard language (b-word). One girl (in a male body) teaches another girl how to flirt to distract the bad guys, but it is shown to be useless and she ends up using martial arts skills instead.

Family discussion: Which avatar would you pick? What strengths and weaknesses would you list for yourself? How did each of the characters use their game-assigned and real-life talents?

If you like this, try: the book and earlier movie and “Help! I Shrunk the Kids!”

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3D Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Stories about Teens

Patriots Day

Posted on January 12, 2017 at 5:28 pm

Copyright 2016 CBS Films

Writer/director Peter Berg and actor/producer Mark Wahlberg have now made their third film in a row on the same theme: real life stories of everyday people showing exceptional courage and dedication in the direst and most tragic circumstances. “Lone Survivor” was the story of a disastrous Navy SEAL operation. “Deepwater Horizon” was the story of the BP oil rig explosion. Now “Patriots Day” is the story of law enforcement from the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon to the killing and capture of the brothers responsible.

In all three films, Berg takes a story we know — or think we do — and creates a gripping, tense drama centered on a man who exemplifies American values of decency and integrity and shows exceptional ability to rise to the occasion. Wahlberg is a perfect choice to play those roles, and here he gives grace and dignity to the role of Tommy Saunders, a composite character based on the Boston cops who were on the ground when the bombs exploded, oversaw triage to manage the crowd and oversee emergency services and then tracked down the people responsible in just 19 hours.

And as in the earlier films, Berg’s focus is not on the people making the big policy decisions but on the people who are dealing with the consequences. He begins a brief but vivid chance to get invested in some of the key players just before Boston’s annual Patriots Day race, including some of the participants who will later be injured and Saunders, unhappy about being assigned to the race and struggling with a bad knee. Everything is the usual benign chaos until suddenly it becomes terrifying and catastrophic as the bombs explode near the finish line and no one knows what happened, who caused it, or whether more attacks are coming, with an anxious score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as Saunders and the other cops have to try to figure out what is going on, surrounded by severely injured people and panicked crowds — and, probably, somewhere, the bombers.

The minute-by-minute procedural section is engrossing, with territorial squabbles and conflicting priorities involving the police force and the FBI. The injured people may have crucial information the cops need right away but they also have injuries that need treatment right away, treatment that could make it difficult or impossible for them to talk or remember. The press insists on releasing photos of possible suspects despite law enforcement’s concerns that it could impair the investigation. And what do you do when a key witness insists on a lawyer, or decides to leave the police station? One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the interrogation by a hijab-wearing FBI agent of the wife of one of the suspects, an incendiary performance by “Supergirls” Melissa Benoist. The film does not take a position on the abandonment of Constitutional rights in an emergency with perhaps hundreds of life at stake; it just presents it as the immensely complex problem with no right answer that it is.

And then, with ultimate respect, it concludes with footage of some of the real heroes. That’s the crying part, as it should be.

Parents should know that the theme of the film is a real-life terrorist attack with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images of bodies and wounds; also very strong language, some bigotry, and some drug use.

Family discussion; How did social media affect the way this attack was investigated? What does this movie have in common with the two other fact-based stories from the same director and star?

If you like this, try: “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon”

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Based on a true story Drama

Coming Through the Rye

Posted on October 13, 2016 at 5:24 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some drug material, sexuality and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sad offscreen death,
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 14, 2016

Copyright Red Hat Films 2016
Copyright Red Hat Films 2016
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

That, of course, is Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s classic of adolescent anguish, Catcher in the Rye. Even more than the parts about “phonies” and the simultaneous wish to avoid entanglements to protect all that is innocent and vulnerable in oneself and somehow protect the innocent and vulnerable in others, that line packing so much understanding and such a powerful invitation has made generations of teenagers feel understood and validated. (See “Six Degrees of Separation” for Will Smith’s fascinating and disturbing speech on the book’s meaning.) More, it has made them feel invited. If Holden thinks that connecting to a work of fiction can make you feel like the author’s friend, then perhaps, despite his being the most well-known recluse of 20th Century America, Salinger might welcome a visit.

That is the basis for this film about a very Holden-esque adventure undertaken by a prep school senior who wants J.D. Salinger to approve his theatrical adaptation of Catcher in the Rye. Like Catcher, it takes its title from the folk lyric by Robert Burns. Holden imagines himself saving children who are playing in a field of rye, catching them before they go off a cliff.

Alex Wolff plays Jamie Schwartz, a sensitive theater kid (we see him exclaim “A plague o’ both your houses” as Mercutio in a school production of “Romeo and Juliet.” He has a bit of a crush on the girl who plays Juliet and does not notice that there is less flashy but far more substantial girl named Deedee (Stefania LaVie Owen) who has a bit of a crush on him. When he is the target of a bullying prank at school, Jamie and Deedee decide to take a car trip and go visit J.D. Salinger. (What is it with these Wolff boys? Alex’s brother Nat appeared in “Paper Towns,” another movie about a teen car trip.)

We know where this is going. It’s the kind of journey where a lot of growing up will happen. There are not many surprises (except for the way Jamie and Deedee finally learn Salinger’s address from the only locals not committed to protecting his privacy). Owen does more than should be possible with an underwritten character who is essentially a fantasy figure, endlessly understanding and devoted (and on the Pill but not for sex!) But she and Wolff, and Chris Cooper in a brief but telling role, make it a worthwhile trip.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, a dangerous prank, and teen drug use. There is a sad offscreen death.

Family discussion: What author would you like to visit? Was Salinger right about not allowing Catcher to be adapted for theater or film?

If you like this, try: “HairBrained” and “A Birder’s Guide to Everything”

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Inspired by a true story Movies -- format Romance Stories about Teens

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

Posted on March 20, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 on appeal for language, sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death (offscreen)
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 21, 2014
Poster courtesy of Dreamfly Productions, Lavender Pictures, and There We Go Films
Poster courtesy of Dreamfly Productions, Lavender Pictures, and There We Go Films

First rule: do NOT call them bird watchers. These are seriously ornithophilic teenagers and the correct term is “birder.”

Maybe one reason they like birds so much is that the three members of the high school birder society — all male — are odd birds themselves. When one of them catches a glimpse of what just might be a duck previously thought to be extinct, that is exactly the adventure they had been hoping for, something big and meaningful and important, something to prove to everyone around them and maybe to themselves, too, that what they care about really matters. And an adventure would also be a good excuse to get away from some uncomfortable situations at home and school and be in a place that feels like a truer home.

David (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is more than uncomfortable. His mother has died. She had been a birder, and being passionate about birds makes him feel close to her. Now his father (James LeGros), who “literally kills birds for a living” (he owns chicken restaurants) is about to marry the nurse who took care of his mother.  She is a warm-hearted and sympathetic person, but to David she is an intruder, especially when she accidentally lets her robe slip and he gets a look at her breasts.  He is the one who gets a quick, blurry picture of the possibly-rare duck and he takes it to an expert (Ben Kingsley), who confirms that it could be a Labrador duck, and who shares some memories of David’s mother.

If it can be confirmed that the Labrador duck is not extinct, this would be very big news.

The other two members of the Young Birders Society (high-spirited and highly hormonal Alex Wolff and nerdy control freak Michael Chen) “borrow” a relative’s car and go off in search of the possible Labrador duck.  They try to “borrow” camera equipment, too, but are discovered by a girl from the photography club, (Katie Chang) who insists on going along so she can be the one to take the pictures.

It’s an often-told coming-of-age journey tale, but nicely understated and there are some unexpected twists and sensitive performances.  The people who made this film brought the same loving attention to the characters that the characters do to the small feathered creatures they care for so deeply.

Parents should know that there is some teenage strong and crude language, brief nudity and sexual references.

Family discussion: Why was the duck so important to David?  To the others?

If you like this, try: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and watch some birds


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Coming of age High School Movies -- format
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