Ticket to Paradise

Posted on October 20, 2022 at 5:12 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief suggestive material
Profanity: A few strong words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness portrayed as humorous
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, animal bites
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 21, 2022

Copyright Universal 2022
Director/co-writer Ol Parker has taken most of the ingredients from the hit “Mamma Mia” and remixed them, as he did with his sequel, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!” Oscar-winning actors of vast charm and charisma. Screensaver-pretty settings on the shore. Wedding plans for a young couple that the older folks think may be too young. Bringing together people who have not seen each other for a long time and have unfinished business. All of which can be combined for entertainment value. But in this case, “Ticket to Paradise” leaves out the most important element in the success of the “Mamma Mia” films: the music of Swedish singing sensation ABBA. And it leaves out the most important element in the success of any movie: believable characters we want to succeed.

It gets pretty far on the screen chemistry of its two leads and up-and-coming star Kaitlyn Dever (be sure to check her out in “Rosaline,” “Booksmart,” and “Short Term 12”). George Clooney and Julia Roberts play David and Georgia Cotten, battling, bitter exes who divorced 20 years ago, after a five-year marriage and are still so hurt and angry they insist on not being seated together at their daughter’s college graduation. Dever plays their daughter Lily, who loves them both and tries to please them but finds it all exhausting. She is headed to law school, but first she and her BFF Wren (the always-great Billie Lourd, also from “Booksmart”) are off to a vacation in Bali. So basically the rest of the movie takes place in my screensaver, which the characters in the movie credibly keep calling the most beautiful place in the world. There she meets and falls in love with a local seaweed farmer with a great smile (Maxime Bouttier as Gede). And she decides to marry him, even though he lives half a world away from her home in Chicago and she’s only known him a month. Her parents decide they will suspend hostilities long enough to stop the wedding. And they think the best way to do that is to pretend they are on board while they subvert it every way they can. So, basically, “Mamma Mia” plus Roberts’ own “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” But no ABBA music and no Rupert Everett to disguise the fact that it lurches from one dumb situation to another.

Roberts and Clooney do their considerable best, and for those, and there are many, who would pay to hear them read the phone book, this movie will do the trick. But we can see the effort they are putting in to sell material, dialogue and situations, that are just not up to the task. Roberts uses her dazzling smile and endearing laugh (despite costumes designed to make her look dowdy even though she is supposed to be a highly sophisticated art dealer) and Clooney uses his raffish charm, all of which go a long way, just not long enough to withstand the dreariness of a storyline that depends on intended-to-be-hilarious animal bites and intended-to-be-charming insults between exes. It is childish, selfish, and exhausting. Like Lily, we wish we could be half a world away from it, gazing at the sunset from a pristine beach.

Parents should know that this movie has mild peril including a snake bite, some mild sexual references, and a few bad words.

Family discussion: What do we learn from the different versions of David’s proposal we hear from both sides? What will happen to Lily and Gede?

If you like this, try: “Mamma Mia” and its sequel and better Roberts and Clooney movies like “Oceans 11,” “The Runaway Bride,” and “One Fine Day”

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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
Date Released to DVD: March 4, 2019

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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Wonder

Posted on November 16, 2017 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some bullying and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Wonder is more than a book — it is a movement. R.J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, and its follow-ups, including Auggie & Me, have become hugely popular with middle schoolers and their teachers. That is because it is not a story about disability, even though its hero is a 10-year-old with craniofacial deformity who is starting school for the first time after 27 surgeries. It is a story about friendship, family, and above all, kindness. As the 5th grade teacher writes on the blackboard, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Auggie (“Room’s” Jacob Tremblay) lives with his loving parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), his devoted older sister Via (for Olivia) (Izabela Vidovic), and their dog in a comfortable New York brownstone. With medical treatment to help him see and hear, Auggie’s face is misshapen and scarred. School principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) tries to put Auggie at ease by joking about his name (everyone has something people make fun of) and recruiting three students to give him a tour of the building before school starts. Scholarship student and all-around boy next door Jack (Noah Jupe), self-centered but not mean Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and nice-to-grownups-but-a-bully-to-anyone-who-makes-him-uncomfortable Julian (Bryce Gheisar) show him around, alternating between rude questions and pretending he’s not there.

And then school begins. Palacio has taken the most fraught period of life, when friendships are most vital and the tiniest panic about not fitting in can be devastating and heightens it even more by creating an extreme case. Auggie has already triumphed over his disability, which he barely notices. It is triumphing over middle school that is the near-impossible challenge. Palacio and this film understand that it is this time above all, with so many volcanic physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, it seems so desperately important to fit in, to seem, in the narrowest terms, “normal.” And, unfortunately, because they are still so young, it can seem that the best way to do that is to call attention to the ways that other kids are less normal than they are.

So, anyone who’s ever been in middle school will understand why Auggie comes home after the first day and cuts off his padewan braid, not with a light saber because he’s been made a Jedi knight but with his sister’s scissors because kids made fun of him at school. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with his face.

That comes later. The kids spread a rumor, even though none of them really believe it, that touching Auggie will give you “the plague.” And then Auggie does two things that made Julian lash out even more. He is smart in school. And he becomes friends with Jack and then some of the other kids, too, including Summer, a popular girl who joins Auggie’s table in the cafeteria not because she feels sorry for him but because she correctly senses that he is nicer than the catty girls she had been sitting with.

There are setbacks, as when Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, where he gets to look like everyone else, means that he has a chance to overhear what people say when they think he’s not around.

What elevates this film, though, is its recognition that kindness begins with empathy. By leaving Auggie’s point of view to let us know what is going on with some of the other characters, we understand more about why they behave the way they do. Via tells us what even her parents do not know, that it is difficult to be the sibling of a child with a problem, and that the most difficult part is feeling that there’s no space left for any problems from anyone else. When she is abandoned by her closest friend, we think we understand, until we get to see things from the friend’s perspective as well.

Director Stephen Chbosky (writer/director of another story about young friends, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and screenwriter for another movie about a character feared for his looks, “Beauty and the Beast”) has made a wise, warm-hearted film that is a balm for troubled times. It also just happens to have one of the most beautiful performances of the year by Julia Roberts, who wanted to be in the film after she read the book to her children. Look at her face as she sees that Auggie is bringing a friend home for the first time. It contains so much love, relief, surprise, and effort to contain all of that and more it serves as a one-minute master class in screen acting.

“I’m an ordinary kid,” Auggie tells us. “I just don’t look ordinary.” This is a movie that might look ordinary but is a quiet gem of insight and inspiration.

Translation: Story deals with challenges faced by a boy with craniofacial deformity attending school for the first time, bullying, some scuffles, mild schoolyard language

Family discussion: What can you do to choose kindness? How do you know when it is time to be right and when it is time to be kind? Why did Jack make fun of Auggie? Why did Summer sit with Auggie?

If you like this, try: Auggie & Me, the book by Wonder author R.J. Palacio that expands the story

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Smurfs: The Lost Village

Posted on April 6, 2017 at 5:21 pm

Copyright Sony 2017

The Smurfs are back where they belong, in a fully-animated feature film that wisely gives up on the idea of trying to put them into the real live action world and even more wisely gives up on the brash and unfunny storylines that relied much too heavily on substituting “smurf” for various words. Better than that, “Smurfs: The Lost Village”creates a truly enchanted and enchanting world for the Smurfs, a candy-colored pastoral setting that is just right for the little blue creatures. And best of all, for the first time this is a Smurf story that engages with the ultimate existential dilemma of the Smurfs: why are all the male Smurfs given names that reflect their most salient attributes (Hefty, Clumsy, Brainy, Nosy, Painter, Table Eater, Therapist) while the lone female Smurf is only defined by her gender and called Smurfette? Does her lack of a more descriptive name mean that there is nothing special about her? And why aren’t there any other female Smurfs, anyway?

These questions will all be answered in a delightfully satisfying and beautifully designed film that will be enjoyed by long-time fans and newcomers. Those steeped in Smurfology know that Smurfette’s gender is not the most important difference that sets her apart from the other Smurfs in her village.

Smurfette (with the sweet, spunky voice of Demi Lovato) was not born a Smurf (if, indeed Smurfs are born). She was created out of clay by the Smurfs’ nemesis, the evil wizard Gargamel (delightfully voiced by Rainn Wilson), who wanted her to infiltrate the Smurfs so she could spy on them and create mistrust and jealousy. But she was turned into a real Smurf by the Smurf’s wise and benign leader, Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin). As this story begins, she is living happily in the Smurf community, though wistful at not having a (literally) defining characteristic. If her name does not tell her who she is, how will she and the boy Smurfs know?

As in most Smurf stories, the bad buy here is Gargamel, who as usual has an evil plan that involves capturing the Smurfs and extracting their magic to create a potion that will give him unlimited power. Smurfette discovers that there is another Smurf community, so she, Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Brainy (Danny Pudi), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) go on a journey to find it. The adventures along the way and the fun of getting acquainted with the Amazonian warriors of the lost village (including Julia Roberts as their leader) are whimsically imagined and a lot of fun, with bright, lively music and a sweet message of finding your own way and being a part of a community.

Parents should know that this film has some mild fantasy peril and violence, with no one badly injured. There is some mild language and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: If you were a Smurf, what would your name be? Which Smurf is your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: the Smurf cartoons and books and “Trolls”

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Money Monster

Posted on May 12, 2016 at 5:58 pm

Copyright Smokehouse Pictures 2016
Copyright Smokehouse Pictures 2016

Director Jodie Foster, in her most ambitious project so far, shows an impressive command of the language of film and a discerning eye for the gulf between the way we like to think of ourselves and the way we are in “Money Monster,” which begins promisingly but then pulls its punches with a disappointingly conventional last 40 minutes. It aims for “The Big Short” plus “Dog Day Afternoon,” but comes up just ahead of “Man on the Ledge.”

 

George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the host of a Jim Cramer-style television show about investing that is more dazzle than reporting. He dances with back-up girls, he amplifies his commentary with movie clips and outrageous stunts. Every episode has a stock buy recommendation “of the millennium,” and on this night he has to announce that one of his previous favorites, IBIS, has suffered a precipitous drop in the stock price due to a “glitch in its algorithm.” IBIS is one of those buzzword-y Wall Street darlings that no one really understands, but it has to do with a fully automated system for “high-frequency trading.”

Gates, a long-time enthusiast of the company, has invited the IBIS CEO (Dominic West as Walt Camby) to be a guest on the show, but the company’s director of communications, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) is appearing instead, explaining that Camby is on an airplane and cannot be reached. Before her segment, though, a man named Kyle (Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken”) walks onto the set. He has a gun, and he takes Gates hostage, forcing him to wear a vest packed with explosives. He invested everything he had in IBIS, based on Gates’ glib assurances.

In the booth, speaking to Gates via earpiece, is his producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts). As a producer, she is used to being the only grown-up in the room (and a little tired of having to be one). She quickly evaluates the situation and keeps things going moment to moment while she tries to figure out a way for the situation to end without anyone being hurt.

Foster skillfully takes us from the intensity of the hostage standoff on live television to show us what is going on with the police led by Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito), trying to find out more about the man with the gun and evaluating potential strategies for disarming him, and to the efforts to track down Camby both by Patty’s staff and by IBIS insiders. A couple of unexpected twists and some well-timed comic relief help hold our interest. And Clooney gives one of his most nuanced performances as a man who has spent a lot of time and burned a lot of bridges trying not to think too hard about the impact he has had on people. As both he and Patty use the skills that made them successful in the world of infotainment — and a few new skills, too — the natural chemistry between Clooney and Roberts and their combined star power keep the tension level high. But Kyle and Camby are under-written and the last 20 minutes are a disappointment with a resolution that is too easy and too Hollywood. We know who the monster is, here and we wish the movie knew it, too.

Parents should know that this film includes constant strong language, violence including gun, bomb, characters injured and killed, betrayal and illegal behavior, and sexual humor and situations, and drug use.

Family discussion: What makes Lee change his mind about Kyle? Would you take investing advice from Lee? What does it mean to say “we don’t do journalism?”

If you like this, try: “Dog Day Afternoon,” “John Q,” and “The Big Short”

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