poster for American Dreamer

American Dreamer

Posted on March 14, 2024 at 5:28 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing material, violence, some strong sexual content, pervasive language, and drug use
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, sad death
Diversity Issues: Class issues

Sometimes an actor seems more interested in the role he wants to play than the movie he wants to make. Peter Dinklage is wonderful to watch as always in “American Dreamer” as an unhappy adjunct professor (meaning no benefits, no tenure, not even a parking spot) who is morose and cynical and yet somehow still appealing to the ladies. He’s opposite the always wonderful to watch legend Shirley MacLaine. Even so, the movie does not quite work.

Dinklage is the dreamer of the title, Dr. Phil Loder, who teaches “cultural economics.” In the opening scene, he tells his students that “we are now simply a collection of things we acquire.” He urges them not to define themselves in terms of their possessions and to seek true value in what cannot be bought and sold. He does not follow his own advice, though. He spends his free time scanning through real estate listings as though he was swiping right on a dating app. The houses he gazes at so lovingly are all way out of his price range. The realtor representing those high-end mansions is Dell (Matt Dillon), superficially smooth, professionally affable but with the heart of a cash register.

Dell is fed up with Phil, who comes to lavish open-houses and tells prospective buyers not to bid. Phil is fed up with pretty much everything, especially himself. And then he discovers an ad for a spectacularly beautiful mansion on the water with an unusual provision: the home is owned by an elderly woman. She is looking for someone who will pay her $250,000 to move into an apartment in the home and perform some caretaker duties, and then will inherit the entire property when she dies.

Dell investigates and tells Phil that the house is in immaculate condition and the owner is frail and has no children. Phil cashes in everything he has to raise the money. And then he finds out the deal is a not quite what he was promised. The owner is the spry Astrid Fanelli (Shirley MacLaine), who looks like she will outlive Phil and all of his 20-something students. And she keeps introducing him to her “kids,” including one who is an estate lawyer and tells Phil she will make sure he never gets the house.

The movie cannot decide if it is social commentary or a redemption story, and it does not quite work as either one. Still, lesser Dinklage is still worth a watch.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, drinking and drunkenness, old age and a sad death, and sexual references and situations with brief non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Why was Phil so bitter? Why was he so insensitive to other people?

If you like this, try: “”She Came to Me,” “The Baxter,” “Cyrano,” and “The Station Agent,” better Dinklage films.

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Cyrano

Posted on January 31, 2022 at 6:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some strong violence, thematic and suggestive material, and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Sword fights and battles, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but transphobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: February 4, 2022
Date Released to DVD: April 18, 2022

Copyright 2021 MGM
Cyrano” is a gorgeous film, a true labor of love. The basis, of course, is one of the great classic plays of all time, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac, inspired by a real soldier/writer. Jose Ferrar won an Oscar for his performance as the title character in a 1950 film. The story of the man who cannot tell the woman he loves how he feels because of the way he looks has been adapted and rebooted many times, with probably the best known Steve Martin’s Roxanne and most recently set in a high school in “The Half of It.” Everyone can identify with a character who is afraid to approach the object of their affection and everyone would like to identify with a character whose wit is as ready and sharp as his sword. In the original and the Steve Martin version, the main character’s rapier-like comebacks to a thoughtless bully are a highlight.

In the original and “Roxanne,” the impediment is a nose so big that the Cyrano character believes no one can see him as a romantic partner. In this swooningly romantic new version, set, like the original, in the 17th century, the physical obstacle is size. Writer Erica Schmidt adapted the play as a musical to be performed on stage by her husband, actor Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) as Cyrano, and ravishingly lovely Haley Bennett as Roxanne. They play those parts in this film, directed by Bennett’s significant other, Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”)

Roxanne is loved by three men: Cyrano, the handsome but better-with-a-sword-than-with-poetic-love-letters Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Waves”), and the selfish, predatory De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn). Cyrano has been her closest friend and confidant since childhood. De Guiche is pressuring her to marry him. Her maid reminds her that she has no money and no other options for supporting herself. But one night at the theater, she glimpses Christian, a newcomer to the military unit where Cyrano serves, and she loses her heart to him. Cyrano agrees to ghost-write love letters from Christian to Roxanne. He pretends it is to help the new recruit but in reality it is to have his one chance to tell the woman he loves how he feels, even if the letters are signed by someone else.

In a way, Schmidt is giving her words to the man he she loves so that we can see him the way she does, gallant, mordantly witty, a brilliant actor, and a person of deep and generous humanity. A scene where he is almost about to dare to hope that Roxanne will say she loves him, the emotions that flicker across his face as he is almost successful maintaining his composure is one of the most touching moments on screen this year.

With Schmidt and Wright creating the words and images for the people they love, in spectacularly beautiful costumes (Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran) and settings (Sicily filling in as 17th century France) with music and even some dance numbers, the unabashed romanticism almost bursts out of the screen. Bennett makes a lovely Roxanne, clever and spirited but allowing her own romanticism to blind her to the love that is already hers. Mendelsohnn seems to specialize in bad guys these days, and this is another strong performance, De Guiche’s brutality glimpsed under a very thin veneer of suavity. Harrison makes a gallant Christian. But it is Dinklage who is in every way the heart of the story. Just as we get to see Cyrano finally use his own words under cover of darkness to play the part of the man whose outside matches his inside, in this film we get to see Dinklage take center stage, with a performance of heart-stopping vulnerability. Rostand would be proud, and so would the man who inspired the play that continues to capture us more than a hundred years later.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language, sexual references, sword fights, and battle scenes, with characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Should Cyrano have told Roxanne how he felt? If so, when? Is there a time when you misjudged someone based on looks or when you were misjudged?

If you like this, try: “Roxanne” and the Ferrar and PBS versions of “Cyrano de Bergerac”

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Trailer: Cyrano, Starring Peter Dinklage

Posted on October 7, 2021 at 9:56 am

This new version of the play about the man who can only woo the woman he loves through letters signed by someone else looks gorgeous, and swooningly romantic. For earlier versions, see Jose Ferrar in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Steve Martin’s modern update, “Roxanne.”) Peter Dinklage has all of the dash and world-weariness we want to see in the character and up-and-coming stars Hayley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. look like they will cross over into well-deserved mega-stardom from this film. Can’t wait.

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The Croods: A New Age

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 2:06 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril, minor injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: December 29, 2020

Copyright Dreamworks 2020

The Croods: A New Age is the sequel to the animated film about the prehistoric family is sharply funny, exciting, warm-hearted, and a great watch for the whole family.

We left the Croods at the end of the first film with Grug (Nicolas Cage) finally welcoming in a new family member, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). The family, which sleeps in a pile every night and can form a kill circle in an instant is, Grug thinks, situated as well as possible to find food and to avoid becoming food. But then the climate changes and they have to find another place to live. On the other side of a wall, they discover a kind of paradise, with plenty of food conveniently growing in rows. It is the home of the Betterman family (“emphasis on the Better“), Hope (Leslie Mann), Phil (Peter Dinklage), and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

The Bettermans, who have discovered tools and simple machines, have an elaborate tree-house, cultivated crops, and the wall, which keeps them safe. They have the concept of “privacy,” sleeping in separate rooms. They also have the concept of “rooms.” Also “windows,” and an amusing running joke is the way Grug’s son Thunk (Clark Duke) is mesmerized by the “screen” that’s just a hole in the wall.

The Bettermans are aghast at the lack of refinement of the primitive Croods and gently try to urge them to move on. Except for Guy, who they knew when he was a child. Guy is happy to be reunited with them, especially his childhood friend Dawn. He starts dressing like Phil Betterman.

We might expect Grug’s daughter Eep (Emma Stone) to be jealous of Dawn. But this movie wisely makes Eep and Dawn instant best friends in a funny and sweet scene where they discover what it means to know another girl. It also wisely does not make the Bettermans or the Croods all right or all wrong. Balancing the wish to protect your children from any possible harm with the importance of their learning to be independent and developing a sense of curiosity and adventure.

Basically, there are just two jokes here, but they are funny every time. It is funny when we see that the Croods are just like us (parents want to take care of children and children want to try new things, teenagers have a lot to say to each other but do not always have the words, girlfriends’ voices sometimes get a little screechy when they’re excited), and it is funny to see them discover for the first time in human history what we take for granted (privacy, screens). But what makes this movie worth a rewatch is the constant invention of its visuals, the exceptional detail in the characters, animals, and landscapes, its superb voice talent, and its touching depiction of the foundational ties of family and community.

Parents should know that this film includes some peril and mild injuries and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Is your family more like the Croods or The Bettermans? What would you pick for your tribal name? What is your family’s motto? Ask family members for the stories behind their scars.

If you like this, try: “The Croods,” and the “Ice Age” movies and my interview with this film’s director, Joel Crawford.

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Pixels

Posted on July 23, 2015 at 5:37 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive comments
Profanity: A few bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including drinking to deal with stress and alcohol humor
Violence/ Scariness: Sci-fi action-style violence, no one permanently injured
Diversity Issues: Some sexist and homophobic "humor"
Date Released to Theaters: July 24, 2015
Date Released to DVD: October 26, 2015

Copyright Sony 2015

I never thought I’d see Max Headroom or “Fantasy Island” again, much less have to explain them to someone sitting next to me who was a toddler when they were on television, but Adam Sandler is still relentlessly working his slacker way through every pop culture meme of the decade where he spent his late teens and early 20’s, and apparently the last decade he was willing to pay attention to. He’s used up most of the good ones. That means that this is another film that was pieced together from the cutting room floors of his previous movies plus VH1’s “I Love the 80’s” series. Yes, I know that it is impossible to believe that there was anything worth remembering that happened in the 80’s that they did not cover. And yet, here we are, with a movie about 1980’s arcade games that have become real-life alien invaders. If you remember and retain some affection for games like Frogger, Pac-Man, Tetris, and Q*bert, or if you like Sandler and are relieved he is not making “Grown-Ups 3,” then you might get a few smiles out of “Pixels.”

Grading on a curve, it is tempting to provide some positive reinforcement for Sandler, who in the hands of director Chris Columbus, is better than some of his recent films. But just because it is safe to say he probably will not be a winner at the Razzies this year does not merit him an endorsement. This movie is less predictable and less entertaining than the charmingly retro 8 bit games to which it pays tribute. And unfortunately, one more element carried over from the 80’s is the idea that homophobic and sexist jokes are funny and permissible. Having a female character be a capable military officer does not mean that it is okay to have the other female characters be one-dimensional (literally, one one case).

Sandler, looking puffy and bored, plays Sam, a Geek Squad-style technician who installs fancy television and gaming equipment in people’s homes. In a flashback, we see that as a kid, he had a natural facility to recognize the patterns in arcade games and made it to second in a national competition. The winner was Eddie (Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones”), a mullet-coiffed braggart who triumphed over him in the final round. Another competitor was a whiz kid named Ludlow (Josh Gad, “Frozen’s” Olaf) with poor social skills, conspiracy theories, and a pretty pervy obsession with a video game avatar. And Sam’s loyal friend and supporter was Cooper (Kevin James).

Footage of the competition was sent into space to introduce the galactic community to life on Earth. But it was misinterpreted as a declaration of war, and now the aliens have arrived. Just as in the era of arcade games, they wreak destruction by dissolving everything around them into pixels, according to the same rules and patterns of the original games. Fortunately, if improbably, Cooper is now the President of the United States. So he is able to call on Sam, Eddie (who has to be sprung from prison), and Ludlow to save the day. Helping to coordinate the defense is Violet (Michelle Monaghan), first met by Sam when he is installing a television/game system in her home and finds her sobbing in the closet over her husband leaving her for a Pilates instructor named Sinnamon (with an S) and he comforts and then hits on her. But it turns out that she is actually a top military officer who can muster whole new categories of weapons, train the SEALS, and engage in sizzle-free romantic banter at the same time.

The effects in the battle scenes are fun, turning these very rudimentary characters into real space invaders without losing their iconic 8 bit design. Centipede in particular is impressive, glowing like a Chinese New Year Parade dragon made from Lite-Brite as he slithers through the mushrooms. Like some of the other arcade characters, he is far more vivid and has more personality than the humans in the story.

Parents should know that this film has a handful of bad words, potty humor, sci-fi/action violence with peril and apparent injuries, brief comic view of a portion of a bare butt, and comic but crude sexual references including a threesome. There are alcohol jokes and alcohol is used to deal with stress.

Family discussion: Why did coming in second change Sam’s life? Is Violet a snob? How could the skills you have help save the planet?

If you like this, try: “The King of Kong,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” and “Galaxy Quest”

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