Four Kids and It

Posted on June 29, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some rude/suggestive comment, fantasy violence, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and some violence, guns, explosion
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2020
Copyright 2020 Kindle Entertainment

Let’s get one thing clear before we talk about “Four Kids and It.” We’re going to set aside our deep affection for E. Nesbit’s book Five Children and It for a moment. That classic has at best a homeopathic relationship to this film, which is based on a sort of inspired by, sort of sequel, touch of rip-off called, without much imagination, Four Kids and It. In both cases, the story is about children who discover a magical sand-dwelling creature called a Psammead who can talk and grant wishes. And in both cases, the wishes do not exactly turn out the way the wishers hope, creating a learning experience for the wishers and some fun for the readers/audience. I’ll take a moment to warmly recommend the truly classic original, preferably read aloud and with the Paul O. Zelinsky illustrations, and get on to this far lesser but still pleasantly entertaining version.

A single dad (Matthew Goode as David) and a single mom (Paula Patten as Alice) decide for no reason whatsoever other than being idiot adults in a movie about kids, that what they should do is not tell their children that they have been dating, it is serious, and both sets of children will be staying in the same remote house along the Cornwall coast.

The children do not consider this a good surprise, especially David’s bookish daughter Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), who has brought a copy of Five Children and It along with her, and Alice’s daughter Smash (Ashley Aufderheide), a sk8r grrl with a massive attitude problem. Both girls miss the parents who abandoned them. Ros hopes her mother will come back and Smash hopes her father will let her come live with him. The two younger children are David’s son Robbie (Billy Jenkins), who spends all day on his gaming device and five-year-old Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame), who just wants everyone to get along.

On the beach, the children discover the Psammead, delightfully voiced by a perfectly grumpy Michael Caine. He agrees to grant one wish a day, but each one will expire at sundown.

The house they are staying in is owned by a wealthy and eccentric man named Tristan Trent III (Russell Brand with a beard). He seems very interested in Ros and puts a tracking device on her shoe. While the children are making their wishes and the parents remain clueless, he is trying to find the Psammead.

The fantasy elements and fending off Trent are fun. What matters, though, is the way that Ros and Smash begin to understand how acknowledging they cannot have what they really want makes it possible for them to begin to move forward, starting with developing a friendship. That’s the real magic.

Parents should know that this movie has fantasy peril and some violence, including guns, falls, and an explosion, though no one is badly hurt. There are family issues and confrontations, including two parents who walk out on their families, causing a lot of distress. Characters use some schoolyard language and are rude to parents. There are some mild sexual situations involving adults and there is some potty humor.

Family discussion: If you saw a Psammead, what would you wish for? If you could go back in time, when would you pick?

If you like this, try: Five Children and It and its sequels by E. Nesbit

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The Imitation Game

Posted on December 4, 2014 at 5:03 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, homophobia, suicide
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2014
Date Released to DVD: March 30, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00RY85CQI
Copyright 2014 The Weinstein Company
Copyright 2014 The Weinstein Company

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician with an enormous intellect, an almost equally enormous ego, and an almost equally enormous secret. He was one of the founding thinkers behind modern computing and it is his name that we use for the test that determines whether a computer has achieved true artificial intelligence status. The Turing test standard is human conversation. If a human cannot tell whether he or she is communicating with a person or a computer, than the program has passed the Turing test and is true artificial intelligence.

I’m not sure that Alan Turing could have passed the Turing test. Cumberbatch, who also plays a super-smart, arrogant, and obnoxious guy in “Sherlock,” creates a very different character here. Turing himself is an Enigma. In the opening scene, a sort of job interview nightmare in which Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) is trying to interview Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) for a spot on the team working at the famous Bletchley Park estate to break the code the Germans were using to send orders to their troops. If passing as human means meeting even the most minimal standards of civility and responsiveness, Turing failed that interview. He seemed to think that it was he who was interviewing Denniston to determine whether the task was of sufficient interest and import to merit his attention.

Denniston begins to dismiss him. But when Denniston says that everyone thinks the code, known as Enigma, is unbreakable, Turing says briskly, “Let me try, and then we’ll know for sure.” Denniston does not have a better idea or a better option.

The German code is unbreakable because it is constantly changing, so by the time any one message has been decrypted, whatever was learned could not be applied to whatever comes next. The Allies are perpetually behind. [The process, complicated as it is, has been simplified for the purposes of the movie, glossing over the important work done by Polish mathematicians, the contributions of the French, and the challenges faced as the Germans continued to make the Enigma more complicated and impenetrable as the war continued.) While a bunch of brilliant mathematicians, scientists, and puzzle-solvers (including Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley) worked away, Turning realized not only that what made the code unbreakable was the inability of any then-existing computational mechanism to perform enough calculations fast enough to decrypt the messages before the code was reconfigured the next morning, but that he could create a machine to do it.

We know how it turned out. But director Morten Tyldum keeps the story gripping on several levels. First, there is the conflict between Turing and just about everyone, and the pressure for immediate results as he is spending a lot of time (years) and money on something no one has ever seen before. Second, there are the interpersonal struggles, and Turning’s internal difficulties. He did want intimacy, and we see in his memories of his first love, a boy at his school. He likes Joan, and is briefly engaged to her. But he was gay at a time when being gay was punishable by prison. Then there are other kinds of secrets. One of the people working on breaking the code may be a spy. And once the code is broken, the Allies have the wrenchingly painful decision about what to do with the information. It’s not just a puzzle. It is statecraft, and terrible compromises and terrible losses are part of the job.

The film adds some unnecessary drama and oversimplifies parts of the story. But it is a powerful, complex drama and a long-overdue tribute to a true hero and visionary.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime themes and images, some disturbing, wrenching moral choices, betrayal, the pressures of being a closeted homosexual when it was a crime, drinking, smoking, and some sexual references.

Family discussion: Do you agree with the decision to withhold the news that the code had been broken? To allow the mole to keep spying?

If you like this, try: Read up on the history of the codebreakers at Bletchley (The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-boat Codes, 1939-1943) as well as those in Poland and the spies who helped them get the information they needed and try some online version of the Turing Test.

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Leap Year

Posted on May 4, 2010 at 8:20 am

A movie’s premise can be implausible and still work. The audience does not have to buy into whatever it is that the hero and heroine are after long as we believe that the movie’s characters believe in it. But in “Leap Year,” the premise and its ensuing complications are so preposterous that it just can’t work, despite the best efforts of its adorable leads and postcard-pretty settings. It has become something of a tradition to lead off the year with a weak romantic comedy, and we can cross the 2010 edition off the list.

The ones to blame here are screenwriters Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, also responsible for the mind-numbingly painful Surviving Christmas and Made of Honor. Once, many years ago, they made a fresh and endearing little film about a high school graduation party with a cast of promising newcomers and a soundtrack of unexpected treats. That was “Can’t Hardly Wait.” But since then, they have made one formulaic, synthetic failure after another.

Their first movie had heart. Everything since then has been about what can get studio approval. These are “elevator pitch” movies — the premise is based on a successful film and can be summarized in an elevator ride, and the deal-makers rely on established stars with a lot of appeal to make it work. Their last movie tweaked “My Best Friend’s Wedding” by making the BFF who wanted to stop the nuptials the guy. This one takes the idea of the glossy “French Kiss,” the classics “I Know Where I’m Going” and “It Happened One Night” and about two dozen other squabbling-couple-dealing-with-a-disaster-prone-journey movies and, as Woody Allen once said of his mother’s cooking, “puts it through the de-flavorizing machine.”

Amy Adams in full twinkle mode plays Anna. She is, predictably, uptight, a bit of a control freak, and dying to have her perfect-on-paper boyfriend propose to her. But alas, he gives her diamond earrings instead of an engagement ring, just before he leaves for a meeting in Dublin. When her ne’er-do-well father (John Lithgow) — can his unreliability be the source of her need to be in control? — tells her that in Ireland, women can propose on February 29, she decides that in spite of her lifelong fear of flying, she will pop over to Dublin to pop the question.

But of course the best-laid plans of perky heroines in romantic comedies always go wrong, and here enters the complication. Handsome bartender Matthew Goode, for reasons that are too dull to go into, agrees to get her the rest of the way to Dublin, and all of the predictable problems line up like an obstacle course between us and time to go home. Car problems. Party crashing. Having to pretend to be married. Some flickers of romance that are quickly crushed by some un-funny contrivances and pratfalls. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

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A Single Man

Posted on December 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Attempted suicide, aftermath of car crash with bloody body, themes of grief and loss
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 11, 2009

Designer Tom Ford has exquisite taste, and his first movie is an exquisite movie. Based on a story by Christopher Isherwood, as adapted by Ford, it is the story of one day in the life of a British literature professor in Los Angeles, shortly after the loss of his male lover in a car crash. It is November 30, 1962. And so the awful isolation of grief is multiplied by his inability to acknowledge what they were to each other and who he really is.

Ford’s images are so meticulously arranged they feel like a perfume commercial. There is a remote quality that distances us from what is going on. But there are moments, as when we see a flashback of the professor (Colin Firth) getting the news from a sympathetic relative who has to deliver the message that the funeral is “family only” where the grief and the pain of holding it in is raw and real and devastating.

Firth is revelatory as the professor who feels that his truest self and his deepest emotions are invisible in a world in which being gay is still “the love that dare not speak its name.” We see in memory the man he loved (the always-enticing Matthew Goode) and in the present his encounters with a curiously attentive but respectful student (Nicholas Hoult, all grown up since “About a Boy”). And he spends the evening with his closest friend, a boozy fellow British expatriate (Julianne Moore) with whom he believes he can be almost completely honest, but who still sees him as she wishes he was. There is a hint that all of what happens on this last day could be in his mind; I suspect that it is, but either way, we are caught up in his emotions and his story.

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Watchmen

Posted on July 28, 2009 at 8:00 am

This movie deserves two separate reviews. The first is for fans of the the award-winning graphic novel, a dense, complex, challenging story of superheroes and costumed crusaders with lives that are messy, dysfunctional, and bleak.

You will be very satisfied with this film. Director Zack Snyder (300) is a fanboy who is passionately committed to the book and in essence and detail he really gets it right. The visuals are stunning, especially Night Owl’s flying “Archie,” and he has meticulously realized the vision of writer Alan Moore (V for Vendetta). Although Moore famously has had his name removed from the film because he does not believe that the story he designed to be told in panels on a page can be translated to screen, I think even he would agree that this is a much more sophisticated and faithful adaptation than “V for Vendetta” or “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

While there are moments that reflect Snyder’s understandable nervousness in meeting the demands of the graphic novel’s devoted — sometimes obsessive — fans and one serious weak point in the flat performance of Malin Ackerman as the story’s most significant female character (both Silk Spectre characters, mother and daughter, would appreciate the irony of apparently casting a performer solely for her looks to play one of their roles), overall the film faithfully and successfully grapples with the multi-layered storyline and the fascinatingly flawed characters.

And now for people who are not familiar with the book:

Don’t expect “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man,” or “The Dark Knight.” In fact, as darkness goes, this makes “The Dark Knight” look positively sunny. These are not people who get bit by a radioactive spider or come to earth from an exploding planet. Most of them have no special powers. They are just adrenaline junkies who like to get up close and personal with things that are very dark and disturbing, sometimes for reasons that are very dark and disturbing. And this is a dark and disturbing film, a hard-R with sex and violence that is just this side of an NC-17.

If you think all of that relates to the fact that it takes place in a slightly tweaked alternate world in which Richard Nixon is still President in the 1980’s, then you are beginning to get the idea.

And just to give you some further sense of how fully-realized the world of Watchmen is, the graphic novel, which was on Time Magazine’s list of the top 100 books of the 20th century, is filled with all kinds of artifacts and ephemera, newspaper clippings, excerpts from a memoir, and a separate story about a boy reading a comic book about a pirate. Snyder has separately produced some of this material and it will be integrated into the film when it comes out on DVD.

One of the highlights of the film is the opening sequence set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” bringing us up to date and provide some history and context. The song has, like everything else in the film, at least two meanings. The first is that intended by the song, the upheavals of the 20th century. The second is Moore’s cheeky parallel adjustments. In one quick shot, a female character replaces the sailor planting a kiss on the nurse in the iconic V-J Day photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Years before, there was a group of masked crime-fighters called The Minutemen. One was the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a cigar-chomping, heavily-armed tough guy who sports an ironic (and anachronistic) smiley-button. It is his murder that sets off the story, and he appears in flashbacks that illuminate the past and present. The Comedian is the only Minuteman to belong to a sort of loose successor organization, The Watchmen. But caped crusaders have been outlawed by the Keene Act, and they are not working together any more, at least not officially. Former Watchmen members have gone on to other things. Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), the most intelligent man in the world, now heads up a global corporation. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), once a scientist, was turned into a blue creature with the appearance of a man but with power over time and space. When he needs to think, he hangs out on Mars. His girlfriend is Laurie/Silk Spectre (Akerman), a second-generation crime-fighter. Her mother, the first Silk Spectre, was one of the Minutemen. And then there is Rorschach (the superb Jackie Earle Haley), named for the famous ink-blot test that inspires his mask. As in “V for Vendetta,” these characters all struggle with ends/means issues, but in Rorschach’s case, the line between justice and vigilantism is especially permeable. Everyone is compromised. The good guys are not all good but, even more intriguing, the bad guys are not all bad.

The range of perspectives on how to confront injustice, the moral compromises, and the personal and professional demons of the characters are set in the political context of an escalating nuclear arms race. Do we as a society exploit those who are damaged in ways that are convenient for us, allowing them to do the dirty work while we have the satisfaction of moral superiority? Can you fight bad guys without becoming one of them? Is being smart the same as being wise? Who watches the Watchmen? Does knowing the future reconcile you to it? What is the mask and what is the face? And what does it say about us that we call this entertainment?

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