Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017
Date Released to DVD: August 7, 2017

Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
Ah, the family car trip. Often excruciating, frequently tedious, always unforgettable. For this third in the “Wimpy Kid” movie series, based on the wildly popular books by Jeff Kinney, the story moves from the schoolyard to the highway as Greg and the Heffley family leave home for his great-grandmother’s birthday party. The kid actors from the first movie have grown up. Remember, one of the characters was played by Chloe Grace Moretz, recently in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” And if that doesn’t make you feel old, consider this: the entire cast has been replaced, with “Clueless” star Alicia Silverstone now playing the mom. Tom Everett Scott takes over the dad role from his “That Thing You Do” co-star Steve Zahn.

The Wimpy Kid stories are funny and reassuring for kids and tweens because they can laugh at and with Greg Heffley (now played by Jason Drucker) as he careens from one excruciatingly disgusting encounter to another, many involving human and animal bodily functions and the products thereof. “I like my family and all,” Greg explains, “I’m just not sure we were meant to live together.”

Greg has a dim older brother named Roderick (Charlie Wright), who mistakes the motel safe for a microwave, subjects Greg to an endless stream of demeaning comments, and explains his secret: “I spent years lowering Mom’s and Dad’s expectations.” He has a toddler younger brother who becomes a rage monster without the pacifier Dad has left behind because what better time to wean him than the road trip? Eventually, they will be joined by another passenger, a baby pig, won by the toddler at a county fair.

Along the way, the family encounters filthy motels, a rude bully Greg terms “Beardo,” and the worst horror of all — a Mom-demanded relinquishment of all devices. “This is an unplugged road trip,” she smiles at the boys. “The only connecting we’re going to do is with each other.” She even forces them to listen to dreadful music like — wait for it — the Spice Girls. And Greg has a secret goal. Trying to overcome public humiliation that has gone viral (“Now I’m a meme!”), he is determined to meet and create a video with his gaming idol at a Comic-Con-style gathering just “two inches on the map” from the party.

The kids in the audience, mostly fans of the book series, enjoyed it very much, but adults are likely to find it a very long haul indeed.

Parents should know that this film includes slapstick comic peril and violence (no one hurt), bodily function humor, and some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why do the worst parts of the trip make the family feel closer together? What was your favorite road trip with the family and why?

If you like this, try: the other “Wimpy Kid” movies and the books and “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”

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Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues Series/Sequel Stories About Kids

Gifted

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scenes in bar, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to sad death of parent, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank Adler” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.
Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank Adler” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

What does it mean to be “gifted?” Movies and television don’t do a very good job of portraying what it means to be cognitively advanced, and this one is not close to being realistic, with a first grader who reads up on the problems of the EU and can identify a missing minus sign in an equation several lines long. And she is adorably missing those top front teeth for a really long time when anyone who has ever been the family tooth fairy knows that the new ones come in pretty fast. What we learn from this is that the movie does not want to take any chance that you might need a reminder of how endearing it all is. Everything looks dipped in honey and the script is gooey, too, like a lesser Hallmark movie. But Chris Evans’ sensitive, deeply affecting performance and genuine chemistry with McKenna Grace as his brilliant niece are so honest that it captivates us anyway.

Evans is Frank, who repairs boats and lives with Mary (McKenna Grace) in a tiny apartment in Florida. They have an easy rapport and are completely at home with each other. Mary is also close to their neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer). Mary is cognitively advanced, very curious, sometimes impatient, and sometimes anxious due to her reading about the world economy. Frank has been teaching her at home, but she is about to start first grade at a public school because he wants her to be with other children and to be more of a child herself. “Try being a kid,” Frank tells her as she gets on the bus. He does not really think it is possible to “dumb her down into being a normal kid,” or that it would be the right thing to do if it was, but he would like her to have the chance to make friends with children her own age and learn how to play.

It does not take long for Mary’s new teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) to figure out that Mary is truly gifted, after she has to take out her calculator to check Mary’s computations. Frank’s attempts to deflect her attention are unsuccessful, but Bonnie appreciates his commitment to trying to create some kind of normalcy around Mary. She also appreciates Frank. Though they both know it is not a good idea for Mary or for Bonnie’s job, they begin a relationship.

And then Evelyn (a nicely frosty Lindsay Duncan) shows up. She is Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother. She brings a laptop for Mary and a message for Frank: she wants Mary to get an education commensurate with her ability. “She’s not normal and treating her as such is negligence on a grand scale,” she says. We will learn more about why that matters so much to Evelyn and why Frank refuses when they take the custody fight to court.

Of course we know whose side we should root for and where it is all going. This movie has a lovable one-eyed cat, for goodness sake. But Evans and Grace have a little bit of magic that shines through.

Parents should know that there are some mature themes in this film including a custody battle, a sad parental death by suicide (off-screen) with some strong language, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, alcohol and cigarettes.

Family discussion: Would you like to be as smart as Mary? Why didn’t Mary’s mother want Evelyn to know what she had done?

If you like this, try: “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “Little Man Tate” — and “Captain January” with Shirley Temple

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues

Going in Style

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for drug content, language and some suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Mostly comic peril and violence, issues of aging and illness
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 31, 2017

Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
Oscar winners Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin are such a dream team that we almost forget how weak this remake of the 1979 George Burns “Going in Style” is. It is always a pleasure to see these old pros, and in this heist story the real theft is every scene they are in from anyone else in the cast.

As in the original, which co-starred Art Carney and Lee Strasberg, it is the story of three old guys who rob a bank. This time, the script by Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent,” “Hidden Figures”) leverages the post-financial meltdown Trump era animosity toward banks and big multi-national corporations that consider the pensions they promised their long-term employees as just another stream of revenue to redirect to investment bankers and CEOs. Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman), and Albert (Alan Arkin) are not just proving that experience and wiliness will triumph over youth and overconfidence; they are a new version of Robin Hood, seeking justice for the little guys.

The men are all retirees from the same manufacturing company, which is moving all of its operations out of the United States and cancelling all pension plans. Joe, whose daughter and granddaughter (Joey King) live with him, has had to stop making the mortgage payments that tripled after his rate went up, and his home is in foreclosure. Willie’s dialysis is not enough any more and he will die if he does not get a new kidney. When Joe’s meeting at the bank about his mortgage is interrupted by a bank robbery, it looks like a way for him to solve his money problems.

The three leads give it their best, and there is simply nothing better than that. Their enjoyment in each other and in the chance to have some fun as the movie’s heroes is palpable. And it is a joy to see the still-lovely and very game Ann-Margret as a grocery store clerk with a crush on Al. “SNL’s” Kenan Thompson and Siobhan Fallon Hogan are bright spots, but the gifted Matt Dillon, Christopher Lloyd, Josh Pais, and Peter Serafinowicz (“Spy”) are vastly under-used in one-dimensional roles. This especially disappointing from director Zach Braff (“Garden State”) and screenwriter Theodore Melfi, who seem to think that their only choice here is to make a thinly imagined, tiresomely formulaic, numbingly predictable story. Topical references notwithstanding, the movie is more outdated than the 1979 original.

Parents should know that this film includes armed robberies, guns, serious illness, marijuana, drinking and drunkenness, some strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations.

Family discussion: What did each man find the most persuasive reason to rob the bank? What was the most important advice they got?

If you like this, try: the original version with George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg, and “Tower Heist”

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Comedy Crime DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues Remake

A Dog’s Purpose

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, domestic abuse, fire, law enforcement peril and violence including shooting, sad animal deaths, animal neglect
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 27, 2017
Date Released to DVD: May 1, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01N37D6XC

Copyright Amblin Entertainment 2016
Copyright Amblin Entertainment 2016
The doesthedogdie website helpfully lets us know what some people consider the most important deciding factor in selecting a film. They — and their visitors — will have a tough time with this one because in one sense there are at least three dogs who die in this film but in another the whole point of the movie is that dogs do not really die; there are doggy spirits that go on from dog to dog, learning how to be more devoted, more loving, more helpful. So yes, there are some tough moments for both the human and canine characters in this film. I cried just watching the trailer. But on the other hand, there are gorgeous and adorable dogs. Even better, there are puppies.

“A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the best-selling book by W. Bruce Cameron is an unabashed love letter to dogs and the humans who are lucky enough to be loved by them. Yes, it is sugary and sentimental, but so is the devotion dogs and people have to each other. These are not cats like Garfield, who often scorn us and bestow their favors sparingly, or an “Every Which Way But Loose” orangutan who can outwit us. These are dogs who have nothing but time to play with us or comfort us and are always overjoyed to see us.

Bailey, voiced by Josh Gad of “Frozen,” is born (puppies), then quickly caught by animal control and (subtly) killed. Then, he is born again, and adopted by a boy named Ethan. Bailey is curious about the world and his place in it. Much of the gentle humor of the film comes from Bailey’s efforts to understand human behavior, and much of the sweetness comes from his realization that his purpose is to love, to help, and to remind humans of something important they tend to forget and dogs are very good at — to appreciate this exact moment, to inhabit it fully.

Bailey and Ethan adore one another, happy to play together all day. Bailey gets up to the usual dog mischief, but the real problem in the family is when Ethan’s dad becomes depressed, begins to abuse alcohol, and becomes abusive. By that time, Ethan is a teenager, in love with Hannah (Britt Robertson), and being recruited for football scholarships to college. But things go wrong for Ethan, and Bailey gets old and tired…and is reborn as Ellie, a K-9 dog partnered with Carlos (John Ortiz), and then as a corgi adopted by a lonely student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and then as a neglected dog abandoned by his owner’s boyfriend.

There’s nothing subtle, surprising, or sophisticated about this story, which is as chewed over as a dog’s favorite bedroom slipper. But audiences will be won over by the unabashed affection for its subject and funny-only-after-the-fact incidents that will be only too familiar to anyone who has ever lived with a dog. Its belief in the deep connection between humans and the devoted dogs in their lives — and did I mention the puppies? — help it connect to us as well.

NOTE: The release of some leaked behind-the-scenes footage appeared to show one of the dogs being mistreated by a handler in order to get him to do a stunt. The producer of the film has made a detailed statement about the incident, accepting responsibility for some mistakes but also making it clear that the leaked footage was edited to distort what happened. Anyone concerned about the treatment of the dogs on the film should read his statement in its entirety.

Parents should know that this film has tense, sad, and dangerous situations including very sad deaths of beloved pets and character injured, alcohol abuse, depression, domestic abuse, neglect of animal, fire, law enforcement violence including kidnapping, shoot-outs, and rescue, some potty humor, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: What do you think a dog’s purpose is? How is it different from a human’s purpose?

If you like this, try: The book by W. Bruce Cameron and the movies “My Dog Skip,” “Marley & Me,” and “The Three Lives of Thomasina”

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Based on a book Comedy Crime Drama Family Issues Romance Talking animals

A Monster Calls

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Monster, terminal illness of a parent, tense family confrontations, school bully
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 6, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 28, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTI21YY

monster callsIt turns out that there is something even more painful than the most devastating loss imaginable. That is the lesson of “A Monster Calls,” based on the Carnegie Medal and the Greenaway Medal award winning book by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, from an idea by the late human rights activist Siobhan Dowd.

It takes place in the Irish countryside. “We begin,” the movie tells us, “like so many stories, with a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man and a nightmare.” The boy is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose adored single mother (Felicity Jones) is struggling with cancer and the ravages of its treatment. While other boys are gently awakened by their parents and sent off to school with a good breakfast and a lovingly packed lunch, it is Conor who makes breakfast for his mother (there are rows of medicine bottles in the kitchen cupboard). He also does the laundry before he goes to school, where a bully threatens him. He has a frosty grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and an affectionate but useless father (Toby Kebbell). So, he is alone with his grief, his fear, his anger, and his paints, which he must learn to use to express them all.

Let’s think for a moment about the title: “A Monster Calls.” Is that “calls” as in “pays a call,” or comes to visit? Is it “calls” as in “calls out to?” Is it “calls” as in “calls out from?”

A teacher says sympathetically, “If you ever want to talk…” Conor’s dad arrives from America, where he lives with his new wife and new baby, and he takes Conor to an amusement park. But Conor does not want to talk and he is not amused. A glimpse of the old “King Kong,” Fear and Fury bookends, and a shiver-inducing creaking noise give us a hint that a terrifying, destructive monster may be coming.

And then, yes, Conor is visited by a monster, an enormous walking yew tree with the rumbling voice of Liam Neeson. Conor may think the monster is there to protect him, but that is not exactly true. He says he is there to tell Conor three stories, and then, he says, Conor must tell him one and it must be true. The monster’s stories have a yew tree connection, as does a possible new treatment for Conor’s mother. They begin like traditional fairy tales but do not pretend that the resolutions are fair or straightforward. The fury within the stories seems to take over Conor and he finds himself becoming violent before telling his story forces him to admit what terrifies him even more than the prospect of losing his mother.

This is a complex, richly imagined film with a deep understanding, clear-eyed but compassionate. The stories it contains help us to be honest about our own.

Parents should know that this film is about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer. There are some other disturbing images and situations, including a bully and a monster.

Family discussion: Which story surprised you the most and why? Why was it important for Conor to tell his story? What monsters live inside us?

If you like this, try: the book by Patrick Ness and “Secondhand Lions”

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Stories About Kids
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