Spider-Man: Homecoming

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some teen language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action/fantasy peril and violence, chases, explosions, guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 16, 2017

This latest version of Spider-Man is a homecoming indeed, taking us back to the teenage Peter Parker, a bright kid going to high school in Queens, trying to figure out how to talk to the prettiest girl on the Academic Decathlon as he is also trying to figure out what it means to have the great responsibility that comes with great power. Holland, less soulful and more excitable than his recent predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. In this version (thankfully omitting the radioactive spider bite origin story), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is just 15 years old, a high school sophomore, and that means that everything that is happening to him is equally momentous, whether it’s a school field trip to Washington DC for the Decathlon or another kind of field trip that involves an all-out battle with members of the Avengers fighting each other.

We got a glimpse of Holland as Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei as a very young and appealing Aunt May at the end of the last Avengers movie, “Captain America: Civil War,” when Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) brings him to the big fight. This movie reminds us that is where we left off by letting us revisit that episode through Peter’s eyes. Of course if Tony Stark comes to get you and you end up stealing Captain America’s shield in a huge intramural Avengers battle, and you’re just 15 years old, you’re going to be super-excited and you’re going to record it all on your smartphone.

And once the battle is over, he’s going to be back to his regular life of school during the day and very polite crime-fighting at night, explaining his absences to Aunt May and his friends by saying he has a special internship with Stark Industries. Peter is eager to get back into the big leagues: “I feel like I could be doing more.” But Stark and his aide, Happy (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) tell him to stay home and work on his skills. “Just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Stark says, and Happy warns, “I’m responsible for seeing that you’re responsible.” But he does give Peter a very cool Spark-designed super-suit with many upgrades, and seeing Spidey discover and master them is a big part of the fun.

Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, bringing some of his comic-book vibe from “Batman” and “Birdman.” His character is Adrian Toomes, who is initially given the salvage contract to dispose of the mess left after a super-battle. When his group is replaced, putting the survival of his company in peril, he liberates some of the alien weapons left behind and becomes an arms dealer, ruthless in business but devoted to his family.

The film goes back and forth between superhero action and a John Hughes style teen movie, with with affectionate references to “Ferris Bueller,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “The Breakfast Club.” There is a nerdy best friend (Jacob Batalon as Ned), a way-out-of-his-league girl (Laura Harrier as Liz), a girl with some potential (Zendaya, wryly hilarious), a school field trip for the Academic Decathlon (with a rescue at the Washington Monument), a Spanish quiz, and a prom, all interrupted by some wild stunts, including a split-down-the-middle Staten Island ferry and a world-depends-on-it hijacking of some of the Avengers’ most important objects.

It’s funny (keep an eye out for Captain America’s school videos), it is exciting (the action scenes are very well paced), and it is smart, not overlooking the chance to compare Toomes’ weapon sales to unsavory characters to Stark’s. Holland is an immensely appealing Peter, young but already very much a hero. His super-challenges keep interfering with his teenage rites of passage, but my spidey-sense tells me he’s just right for the job.

NOTE: Stay ALL the way to the end for a second and very funny credits scene featuring one of the Avengers.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic-book/fantasy action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, explosions, murder, and some teen language and sexual humor.

Family discussion: How does this differ from other Spider-Man movies? Why does Peter say no to Tony?

If you like this, try: more Marvel movies and some John Hughes movies, too

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Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week movie review Scene After the Credits Stories about Teens Superhero

Two New Movies About the Triumph of High School Underdogs — The Outcasts and Speech and Debate

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Two very entertaining new movies available in some theaters and on demand both tell stories of kids who are considered dorky outsiders in high school but find a way to triumph, learning some lessons and making some friends along the way. The great thing about being a smart dork in high school is that if you work hard and have a bit of luck, it will give you great material to tell the story some day. No one wants to see a movie from the perspective of the kids who are happy and popular in high school, at least not unless they started out as miserable loners.

“Speech & Debate” is a heartfelt love letter from theater kids to theater kids. Three outcasts, a would-be actress, a would-be investigative journalist, and a new kid who is gay band together when the school board caves in to a local man who objects to the school play, “Once Upon a Mattress,” because there is a mention of an unwed pregnancy in it. The popular play makes an uneasy transition to the screen, but the performances by Liam James (“The Way Way Back”), Sarah Steele (“The Good Wife”), and Austin P. MacKenzie (“When We Rise”) have a believable rapport and it is a treat to see Broadway luminaries like Roger Bart, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Skylar Astin in supporting roles.

“The Outcasts” stars “The Middle’s” Eden Sher as Mindy, a nerdy girl whose best friend Jodi (Victoria Justice) is the victim of a mean prank orchestrated by mean girl Whitney (Claudia Lee). Jodi and Whitney unite all of the school’s various factions, even getting the sci/fi and fantasy groups to stop arguing with each other and join forces. But the girls learn that once you have power it is very tempting to abuse it. Performed with a lot of brio and filmed with humor and sensitivity to all involved, it is fun to watch and worth discussing afterward.

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School Stories about Teens

Saban’s Power Rangers

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi peril and violence, some disturbing images, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 26, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B0727PMH49

power rangersWhy why why why why make the popular series for children into a PG-13 movie? Why emphasize that decision in the very first scene with a crude joke about bovine body parts? Why drag the origin story on for an hour so we don’t get to the good stuff about the powers of the Power Rangers until the movie is half over?

These were among the questions I pondered between glances at my watch as I slogged through “Saban’s Power Rangers,” a big-budget theatrical version of the television series created by Haim Saban (originally “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”), based on the Japanese Super Sentai show about teen superheroes (and using some of its footage).

Our soon-to-be heroes meet in “Breakfast Club”-style detention. There is the handsome quarterback (Dacre Montgomery as Jason), the cheerleader kicked off the squad (Naomi Scott as Kimberly), the self-described crazy loner who cares tenderly for his sick mother (Ludi Lin as Zack), the nerdy guy on the autism spectrum (RJ Cyler as Billy), and the sullen new girl (Becky G. as Trini).

The blah-blah: an ancient civilization perished fighting Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a rogue former Power Ranger who wants to destroy everything. Tens of thousands of years later, our merry band of misfits all happen upon the same power-granting “coins” of different colors (but apparently all the same powers) and learn that their job is to continue the fight, as Rita returns. Their challenge, as she gains her powers from chomping on jewelry and pulling the fillings out of the teeth of homeless people (she feeds on gold), is to learn to use their powers and work as a team (with the only white male Power Ranger as the leader), figuring out how to morph (manifest their primary color-coordinated armor/uniforms) and learning about Rita and her army of rock creatures. They also have access to some very cool Morphin Power Rangers weapon vehicles, but we don’t get enough time to really enjoy them.

Rita’s challenge is to find a last missing infinity stone, I mean crystal, hiding (I am not making this up) in a Krispy Kreme store. I’m not sure if I was the marketing department of Krispy Kreme that I would chose this form of product placement, but, to be fair, they do say the name a lot and a character does stop mid-chaotic fight for the future of the universe to eat a donut. And the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles already have pizza on lockdown.

This uncomfortable mixture of teen angst (Sexting! Disappointing parents!) and cartoonish violence only comes alive when Banks is on screen, clearly having way too much fun swanning around as the embodiment of evil. Bryan Cranston is wasted as an Oz-like talking head and Bill Hader does not have enough to do as a cute little android sensei. The teens are bland and forgettable. The final action sequence departs from the series’ tradition of covering the actors’ faces with the costume (making it easy for them to switch out performers who left or asked for too much money). We see their faces, but it is still hard to remember which one is who.

Long-time fans will get a kick out of glimpsing some of the original stars, hearing a bit of the show’s theme song, and a couple of inside references. But that doesn’t make up for a Power Rangers film that is sadly lacking in any narrative or emotional energy.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi peril and violence with characters injured and killed, explosions, guns, a character impaled, some disturbing images, brief strong language, teen drinking, and crude sexual humor.

Family discussion: Why was it difficult for the Power Rangers to learn how to morph? Why were the Power Rangers all kids who had gotten into trouble?

If you like this, try: the television series and the “Transformers” movies

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Based on a television show DVD/Blu-Ray Stories about Teens Superhero

Before I Fall


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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images, and language - all involving teens
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Fatal accident, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 3, 2017

Copyright 2017 Open Road
Copyright 2017 Open Road
Who would not like to go back in time to correct a mistake? Can you correct a mistake without making it worse?

Lauren Oliver’s debut novel Before I Fall is a bittersweet “Groundhog Day” story about a pretty, popular high school senior named Sam (“Everybody Wants Some!!’s” Zoey Deutch) who lives her last day over and over until she figures out why.

Sam wakes up on “Cupid Day” (her school’s version of Valentine’s Day), happy, confident, and looking forward to the day ahead. Her best friend Lindsay (“Paper Towns'” Halston Sage) is picking her up and at school she is expecting her boyfriend Rob to have red roses delivered to her in class. And that evening, she and Rob have planned to have sex for the first time. Everything seems to be coming together just as she wants it.

She barely acknowledges her parents (yes, that is “Flashdance’s” Jennifer Beals as her mother) as she flies out the door. When her little sister runs after Sam with her gloves, instead of thanking her, Sam barks, “Don’t touch my things!” Lindsay picks up their other two friends, and the movie really captures the wild swings between professing total love and devotion and mildly trashing and topping each other that is teengirlspeak.

At school, the lesson is about the Greek myth of Sisyphus, condemned to keep pushing a huge rock up a hill, never getting it over the top before it rolls back down. But no one is really paying attention and the class is interrupted by the delivery of the Cupid’s Day roses. She receives the red roses Rob sent her — after she reminded him — with a note that is more jaunty than romantic. And then there is a special rose from an old friend, who tells her he is having a party that night. She barely acknowledges him. And she does not even notice a sad and angry girl named Juliet (Elena Kampouris) intently working on a charcoal drawing until they are all in the cafeteria, when Lindsay taunts her. “Remind me why we hate Juliet?” Sam asks, but does not really pay attention to the answer. She is more bored by it than ashamed of it.

She does end up at the party, where Rob gets sloppy drunk and Juliet confronts the girls who have been mean to her, including Sam. Later that night, they learn that Juliet has committed suicide. And then Sam wakes up and it is Cupid Day all over again.

At first, she is frustrated and angry at reliving the same day over and over and over. She exploits the freedom from consequences but it is not fun; it is empty. Finally, she begins to pay attention to the people around her and begins to understand what she has to do.

Deutch ably handles her most challenging role so far, showing us Sam’s thoughtfulness, even in her most self-absorbed moments. The small details of her different approaches to each day keep us aware of exactly where she is on her path to greater understanding. Each day may seem the same to Sam, but for us Deutch makes them different as she passes through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She makes us share her sense of loss, but also her understanding as a reminder of a time she was a hero makes her willing to locate that in herself once more.

Parents should know that this movie includes teen drinking, bullying, strong language including crude sexual references, suicide, and a fatal accident.

Family discussion: If you could live today over again, what would you change? Why didn’t Sam pay attention to Kent and Juliet before? Who is your hero? Whose hero are you?

If you like this, try: “If I Stay,” “About Time,” and “Restless”

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Based on a book Drama Movies Stories about Teens

The Space Between Us

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and language
Profanity: Brief language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Teen mayhem and law-breaking, chases, illness, childbirth scene, sad death, peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: May 15, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01MTDAZNW
Copyright STX Entertainment 2016
Copyright STX Entertainment 2016

An intriguing premise is repeatedly undercut by clunky dialog and corny plot twists in “The Space Between Us,” the story of a teenager born on Mars and his first trip to Earth.

It begins in 2018, just before the launch of the first expedition to colonize Mars. Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) has been planning it since he was 12 years old and now, a joint project from NASA and the private Genesis corporation is sending a team not just to explore Mars, but to live there for four years, in a settlement called East Texas. With the depletion of resources and abuse of the planet, Mars is the best chance for humanity to continue. “Mother Nature does not negotiate.” The night before launch, Shepherd presents the crew, lead by Sarah, who captivates the crowd with her gallantry and confidence. “Courage,” she tells them, “is fear that has said its prayers.”

All goes well at first, but it turns out, about halfway to Mars, that Sarah has committed a reckless misjudgement. She is pregnant. Nathaniel, worried about losing funding for the project, keeps it secret. Sarah dies giving birth and the baby is raised by the scientists on Mars, without anyone on Earth knowing about him other than Nathaniel and a couple of his colleagues. “East Texas runs on money, science, good faith, and PR,” Nathaniel says. He will not risk the mission. And the child, gestated in zero gravity, might not be able to survive the trip home or life on Earth.

By the time we see him again, Gardner (Asa Butterfield, still soulful, and quite the beanpole since we saw him in “Hugo”) is a teenager. His only friends are an astronaut scientist named Kendra (Carla Gugino), who treats him like a lab assistant, and a robot sidekick.

In some ways, he is just like teenagers on earth, moody, uncommunicative, very interested in meeting a girl, determined to find his father, and determined to test whatever boundaries there are. In some ways he is different. He knows very little about the most basic elements of life on earth. And, because he is the first human to grow up in the 62 percent lower gravity of Mars, his physical development — bone density, heart — has been affected so that even if he did get a chance to come to earth, it could kill him.

But remember what I said about boundaries? And girls? Gardner has been e-chatting with a high school girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson, seven years older than Butterfield and looks it), who lives in foster care in Colorado. He runs away from the NASA/Genesis medical facility to meet Tulsa and asks her to help find his father, with Nathaniel and Kendra in pursuit. There were so many possibilities here, to see Earth through the eyes of someone whose only knowledge of the planet and human interaction involving more than the same five people came from Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” and old how-to movies about dating. Instead, we get a syrupy love story and chases with a helicopter, a crop duster, and a series of stolen cars.

Last year’s “The Martian” made the science fascinating. “The Space Between Us” tries to make it superfluous, neglecting some basic principles of physics but even worse, some basic principles of logic.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, non-explicit teen sexual situation, alcohol abuse, teen mayhem (stealing, reckless driving), some peril, childbirth scene, sad death, and health risks.

Family discussion: What’s your favorite thing on earth and why? What surprised Gardner most? What advice would you give him about how to act on Earth?

If you like this, try: “The Martian” and the film Gardner watches, “Wings of Desire”

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Date movie Drama Science-Fiction Stories about Teens
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