Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

Posted on April 27, 2023 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, tension over religious differences
Date Released to Theaters: April 28, 2023

Copyright Lionsgate 2023
Judy Blume revolutionized what we now call YA literature with good stories and appealing characters. Most important, though, was she told the truth, simply and openly, about subjects adults too often make it hard for kids to ask about. It is not just that kids worry about the challenges of puberty, for example. The tougher part is the feeling that they’re the only ones, that everyone else seems to have got some key to it all that they’ve missed. One of Blume’s most popular books is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It was considered revolutionary at the time — and still the subject of book bans today — for its candid depiction of puberty, menstruation, the crushing middle school pressure to fit in, and perhaps even more shocking, questioning whether which religion, if any, she wanted to follow.

Blume resisted allowing her books to be adapted for film for a long time. But now, as a documentary about Blume herself is released, the 85-year-old author has authorized this film (she is also a producer), and it is the most loving, authentic adaptation imaginable, utterly true to the story, tone, and messages of the 1970 novel.

Wisely, they kept the 1970 setting. Today, the girls would get some information (and a lot of misinformation) from the internet and from books by Blume and others who followed her. But in 1970, all they had was rumors and someone’s dad’s Playboy.

The heroine of the title is 11 as the movie starts, and like pre-puberty characters in popular fiction over the years, from Pollyanna to Alice to Dorothy to Pippi Longstocking, she is happy and confident. But like almost all going-on-twelve year olds, she is starting to feel unsure of herself, looks to her peers instead of her parents to set the rules, and tries to blend in with those around her. This is amplified by having to get used to a new school where she does not know anyone. Her new neighbor, Nancy (Elle Graham) introduces herself and invites Margaret over to run under the sprinkler. Nancy is bossy, and Margaret finds that reassuring. When Nancy tells her she must not wear socks on the first day of school, she obeys, even though she gets blisters, as her mother warned her. When Nancy tells her she has to wear a bra, Margaret insists on getting one.

Margaret adores her grandmother, Sylvia, played with brio by Kathy Bates. Today we might call her “extra” or “no filters.” Back then, they probably called her impulsive, brassy, and outspoken. They both worry about missing each other when the family moves, and Margaret loves going into the city all by herself to visit Sylvia. They have a lot of fun together.

This story does not take the usual short-cuts in movies about children and pre-teens, with parents who have to be taught by their kids about what is going on and what they need. Margaret has good parents who love each other and love her. They are perceptive and supportive. Margaret’s father Herb (Benny Sadie) was raised Jewish. Her mother Barbara (Rachel McAdams) was raised by devout Christians and is estranged from her parents because they did not want her to marry a Jew). Herb and Barbara chose to raise Margaret without religion, and that has made her feel like an outsider. She tells her teacher she hates religious holidays because her family does not observe them. So she decides her year-long research project should be about religion. She goes to church with a friend and asks Syliva to take her to services at a synagogue. When Barbara’s parents come for a visit and try to impose their religion, Barbara tells them to leave. This is the most superficial and unsatisfying part of the book and the movie. Margaret learns nothing about religion beyond tribalism and it is hard to imagine she would get a passing grade on her paper.

The film is much better in dealing with the social pressures and the worries about the changes of puberty. It is a very rare film that is honest, in a very low-key way, about the stirrings of female desire. In a very sweet moment, Margaret’s parents exchange knowing glances, then ask her if she’d like to be the one to pay the boy mowing the lawn. She would. A memorable theme from the book and movie is the way a girl who matured early (Margaret at first thinks she is a teacher) is othered and insulted. While Margaret is impatient and worried about when she will develop breasts and menstruate, she learns that a girl who developed early is just as worried and lonely. Her growing sense of herself and the possibilities before her is what has made the book a foundational text for half a century and is lovingly portrayed in this adaptation.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with puberty and menstruation. There is also family strife over religion.

Family discussion: Why does Margaret want to do what Nancy tells her? How has middle school changed since this book was written? Why do some communities want to remove this book from the library?

If you like this, try: the book by Judy Blume

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Game Night

Posted on February 22, 2018 at 10:54 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, sexual references and some violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, knives, chases
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 21, 2018
Kylie Bunbury, from left, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in “Game Night.” (Warner Bros.)

Game Night” is yet another raunchy action comedy about (mostly) white suburbanites who accidentally get in over their heads with criminals and manage to work through their personal issues as they win out over the bad guys with a combination of luck, plot contrivances, and learning opportunities. Thanks to winning performances from the always-reliable Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams this little trip from boringtown to crazytown and back is watchable, with a few clever twists and across the board strong support from the cast.

Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) share a strong competitive streak, a love for games of all kinds (their wedding reception featured a Dance Dance Revolution machine), and a fertility problem, that, in the fairy tale world of this movie, seems to be attributable to Max’s stress over his more successful brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). When Brooks returns after a year in Europe just in time for game night at Max and Annie’s house, Brooks’ passive aggressive and sometimes just aggressive needling just adds to the stress.

The regulars at game night are Kevin (Lamorne Morris of “New Girl”) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), a couple since middle school who get caught up in a conflict over a sexual encounter one of them might have had when they were on a Ross and Rachel-style break, and Billy (Billy Magnussen), a dimwit who brings a different and even dimmer girl every time. At one time, the group included the next door neighbors Gary (Jesse Plemons), a cop, and his wife Diane, but after their divorce Max and Annie stopped inviting Gary because he is kind of creepy.

Brooks invites everyone to the house he has rented for the next game night and promises it will be bigger and better than ever. This time, Billy brings a date who’s got game, Sarah (“Catastrophe’s” Sharon Horgan). Brooks tells them he has hired one of those companies that stages fake crimes for them to solve and the prize is the vintage red Stingray that was Max’s dream car. Just as it begins, though, Brooks is kidnapped for real, which everyone thinks is part of the game. Mayhem, and occasional hilarity, ensue, too often undercut by unnecessary sloppiness in the screenplay, which subverts its own tired premises for no particular reason. All of the highlights of the film are in the trailer except for a funny sequence at the beginning of the credits. If they had given the same attention to detail to the rest of the film, Max and Annie would really be winners.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong and crude language, extended comic peril and violence with some grisly and disturbing images, guns, punches, chase, knife, characters injured and killed, and sexual references including fertility issues.

Family discussion: What makes some people extra competitive? What’s your favorite game? How do gaming skills help these characters solve problems?

If you like this, try: “Date Night”

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Action/Adventure Comedy Crime DVD/Blu-Ray movie review

Slate: Send Rachel McAdams Back in Time

Posted on November 7, 2016 at 3:41 pm

Slate’s Heather Schwedel notes that Rachel McAdams has now appeared in four movies where her job is to sweetly (well, one of them not so sweetly) stand by as the man in her life travels through time, while she herself is stuck like the rest of us, moving forward a minute at a time.

Maybe if McAdams herself could go back in time, she’d rethink her agreement to appear in “The Hot Chick.” But I side with Schwedel in hoping that somehow, some day, she will get to do some time travel herself.

PS The movies are “About Time,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Doctor Strange”

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Features & Top 10s

Doctor Strange

Posted on November 3, 2016 at 5:42 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Prolonged fantasy/superhero peril and violence, serious car accident, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters (Asian male character in the comics portrayed by a white actress)
Date Released to Theaters: November 4, 2016

Doctor_Strange_posterIf they ever give a Best Supporting Prop Oscar, it should go to Doctor Strange’s Cape of Levitation, the most endearing magical implement/sidekick since Sorceror Mickey’s brooms in “Fantasia.” And if they ever give out a Best Superhero Movie Producer and Sustainer of the MCU, the lifetime achievement version should go to Kevin Feige, who has once again figured out just the right balance between consistency and distinctiveness, between action and wit, and, perhaps the most difficult hurdle, between magic and superpowers. “Doctor Strange” has a superb cast, a witty script, and some knockout special effects.

Doctor (not Dr.) Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon. He is also arrogant and obsessed with work with a biting, acerbic wit. If this sounds a bit Tony Stark-ish, you’re on the right track.

He is severely injured in a car accident.  (Distracted driving, kids, wait to send that text or review that CAT scan image until you have safely parked the car.)  His hands are shattered, with nerve damage and tremors, which will end his career as a surgeon.  The man who prided himself on being able to diagnose and cure the most hopeless cases cannot find a way to heal himself.

And then the man of rationality and science, with nothing more to lose, has to try something new. He hears of a man who found a miraculous cure in Nepal, so, despite his skepticism about “alternative” medicine, he goes there only to find that what is involved is an entirely “alternative” way of thinking about the world, the universe, and, perhaps most difficult, himself.

His sensei is known as The Ancient One (the white female Tilda Swinton as a character portrayed as an Asian male in the comics), an ageless and endlessly wise and powerful teacher who shows Strange that the reality he believes he understands and can control is one of many.  The Avengers protect the material world from threats, but The Ancient One and her accolytes protect us from magical threats. Is it indelicate to point out that the most severe threats are all coming from former students, a la Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, and Professor X’s former students, so maybe the best course is for The Ancient One to shut down the school entirely?  And follow her own advice that if you silence your ego your power will rise?

Oh, who cares. This is when we start to get the very cool special effects, with “Inception”-style planes folding over each other and M.C. Escher-style chases.  And you gotta love a neuro-surgeon turned wizard who throws down references to Bob Seger and Beyoncé and, in the big, big moment, finds a solution that is as clever as it is magical.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes, one at the very end.

Parents should know that this film includes intense fantasy and superhero action, peril, and violence, car accident, disturbing and graphic images, characters injured and killed, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why does Strange insist on being called “Doctor?” Why does The Ancient One first turn him down?

If you like this, try: the Steve Ditko-era comics, “Inception,” Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” series, and the “Avengers” films

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