Posts Tagged ‘film reviews’

The Review: 42

April 30, 2013

As I noted in my last post about Jason Collins, now is a particularly prescient moment to see this film with your kids.  I’ll get to that more in a bit, but let’s talk about the movie itself.

42 Movie PosterThe Movie
42, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
No. Though there are numerous books at all reading levels about Jackie Robinson. I’ll get to that below.

Genre
Historical drama

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  While I think this movie might be a little slow for younger kids, the key thing you’d need to decide is whether extremely racist language is appropriate for your child.  I think the power and shock value of hearing how easily racist language and mentalities dripped from Americans in the late 1940s is of tremendous educational value, but you might differ on that.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes, yes, yes.  This film has a very “old-timey” feel to it that anyone who has watched a vintage movie might enjoy, even though sometimes is plays a little cheesy.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Well, the “N-word” is dropped numerous times in this film.  Particularly in the scene when Jackie’s Dodgers play the Phillies under uber-racist skipper Ben Chapman, he is forced to endure a profanity and vulgarity-laced screed replete with sexual innuendo that earns this film its PG-13 rating.  Prepping your younger kids for that scene can help make it a learning experience.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey has decided the time has come for the color barrier of America’s pastime to be broken.  We follow the process of his choice– USC graduate and army veteran Jackie Robinson–breaking through this great wall, starting as a minor leaguer in Montreal through is first season in Brooklyn.

My Review
I saw this movie with my 11-year-old and his buddy, both avid baseball fans.  And as a teaching tool about civil rights, prejudice, and the bravery of the path of nonviolence, it is hard to imagine a better film for that audience.

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

I have to say going in I was a little worried about the choice of newcomer Chadwick Boseman, as from the previews I had not seen the cerebral, almost nerdy Jackie Robinson that I had seen in old films, including The Jackie Robinson Story where Jackie plays himself (it used to be streaming on Netflix, but is no longer…interesting).  Instead, it looked like they had turned him instead into a contemporized and stereotypical “angry black man.”  I have to say that was one concern that was alleviated by a solid scripting of the character and a convincing performance by Boseman.

"You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!"

“You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!”

I was also delighted to see Harrison Ford actually act in a film for the first time in at least a decade, rather than just say lines and collect a check.  While his performance was slightly schmaltzy, again for a younger crowd it worked very well.  Of course, the kids were in complete disbelief that, “That was Indiana Jones!”

Actually, schmaltzy is a great word for this entire movie.  From the score to the script, the film felt not sappy, but larded through a lens of baseball mythology.  From the little boy putting his ear to the track carrying Jackie’s train to the big leagues screaming, “I can HEAR it!” to the slow-motion trot around the bases to the shouts of trumpets and angels, the film itself sometimes felt like a glorified movie-of-the-week. But that glorification actually made it work, mostly because this really is American myth.

This story is so seminal that it can stand up to being put on a pedestal and not crash under its own weight.  I actually compare this to John Goodman’s The Babe which in many ways had a similar feel, but despite the realistic depictions of ballparks and Goodman being one of my very favorite actors, it just felt like an over-the-top beatification of the Babe.  But here, perhaps because this was such a huge issue, one that transcended baseball, it works.

Didn't realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in.  Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

Didn’t realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in. Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

And speaking of realistic depictions of the ballparks—wow.  My parents practically lived at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds growing up.  Of course, I’ve seen the parks on film.  But the painstaking CGI recreations of these parks, for the first time, made me feel like I could actually go and visit those long gone baseball cathedrals.  I found the CGI of the ball’s flight when pitched or hit a little distracting and unrealistic sometimes, but that’s a small nerdy quibble for getting closer than I ever thought I could get to experiencing those fields of dreams.  If that’s something of interest to you, I highly recommend you going to see this in the theater.  It will lose some of its grandeur even on your big screen TV at home.

Now THAT'S a slow-motion home run trot!

Now THAT’S a slow-motion home run trot!

Speaking of grandeur, I think what was missing for me in this film was a lack of grandeur, actually.  We skipped from one seminal moment to another, and I almost felt like I was watching a historical highlight reel rather than a cohesive story.  In order to be a great film, I felt like the story needed a little more connective tissue.  One of the great baseball films of all time that has a similar mythological feel, The Natural, is replete with small moments, from talking about how good the food is at a restaurant to batting practice conversation.  It brought a personal feel to a grand film that I really didn’t find much in 42.  Even the personal moments were vital, as if every second of the man’s life was filled with huge importance.  That separation from a regular Joe like me was missing, and, I think, kept 42 from truly competing with movies like The Natural, Field of Dreams (my favorite movie of all time), Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham and even Major League (just the first one) as iconic baseball films.

That said, it does more than enough to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Having Gus quote me Branch Rickey’s line “I’m looking for a man with the guts not to fight back!” made it worth the price of admission right there.

Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
I will once again recommend that, whether before or after you see 42, you and your kids read the excellent piece Jason Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated as he joins Robinson as a civil rights pioneer through sports.  For more on Jackie Robinson for kids, I’m a big fan of the “Who Was?” series and there is a very good one on Jackie Robinson that we own.  And, to continue the story, one of the all-time classic baseball books Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer is recommended for absolutely anyone.

But, however, you do it, please bring Jackie Robinson into your children’s life.  I truly believe his story is a gateway to a cornucopia of fantastic life lessons.

The baseball is just a fringe benefit.

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The Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

August 7, 2012

A weekend trip to West Virginia and the splendor of Coal Country Mini Golf kept us from seeing this opening weekend, but the G-men and I checked out the third installment of the DoWK film series yesterday.  You can check out my take on the two books this film was based on, The Last Straw and Dog Days, in my Read It Then See It post here.

The Movie
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Fox.

The Book(s)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, by Jeff Kinney.  Originally published in 2009.

Genre
(Very) Juvenile Fiction

Age Appropriate
6 and up, but with one very important spoiler that will save your younger child a potential scream and cry.  See my Spoilers for Younger Kids section below.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Don’t expect Shakespeare, but some very solid physical comedy with an increased focus on Greg’s Dad, played by most excellent comedic actor Steve Zahn, makes this a perfectly fun ride for we who are growing out rather than up.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Everything in this movie is just fine for all ages.  A little rude language and a scene of the Heffley family’s new dog staring at Greg while he’s sitting on the can is about a close as it comes…save one scene.  When Greg and the gang are on a camping trip, the hilariously strange Fregley decides to tell a scary story about the “Muddy Hand.”  Totally classic, but I didn’t realize until half way in that my little guy had never heard a ghost story before.  And when the inevitable hand came out of the tent (ended up being one of the grown ups just exiting the tent), Gunnar jumped in his seat, screamed in a tone of abject terror I had never heard before, and went fetal.

This would be about the time to shut those little ones’ eyes.

He recovered quickly and showed no ill effects after the movie, but I would HIGHLY recommend either covering your younger kids’ eyes for this scene or spoiling it for them (“Watch, a hand is going to come out of the tent, but it’s only one of the grown ups.  Silly, huh?”) rather than give your child a trial by fire (literally) as I did.  If I can save one nightmare, then I feel like I’ve done my job…

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
Rising 8th grader Gregg Heffley’s idea of a great summer includes two things, playing video games and getting a chance to hang out with the girl of his dreams, Holly Hills—preferably at the same time.  But when Holly misses out on giving him the last two digits of her phone number, Gregg embarks on a wild ride from taking him from hairy backs at the public pool to terror on the country club tennis court in an effort to win Holly over.

Patti’s scenes are getting smaller but are always memorable

At the same time, Gregg is running into more and more of a problem with his Dad, whose efforts to get him out of the house causes him consternation until Gregg lies about getting a summer job at the country club.  When Gregg is caught in the lie, he learns an important lesson in the difference between having people angry with you and disappointed in you.  A trip to the woods, defending his father’s honor against the block bully, and one spectacularly horrific concert by his brother’s band Loaded Diaper, and Gregg ends up with even more than he could have ever expected for his summer break.

My Review
I have to say I continue to be impressed with the creative team, especially director David Bowers and screenwriter Maya Forbes, for taking what I believe is the incredibly thin and somewhat mean-spirited material in Jeff Kinney’s books and turning it into fun, family fare with some heart, all while not abandoning many of the slapstick gags that make the books so popular.

Much of what I enjoy about the book is what is NOT there.  Gone are the scenes of Gregg really abusing Rowley’s friendship, from the “time machine” to their attempt to do a lawn service together.  These were the kind of antics that Gregg did in the first film, and while in the book he just continues on the same path, in the movies Gregg is actually growing and changing.  Even though his continues to make (hilarious) mistakes, the movie Gregg is, at his heart, a good kid.

SO much more sense than the book

Also gone was Gregg’s mysterious choice to essentially drop Holly Hills in favor of attempting to woo his big sister, Heather.  Instead, the film wisely continues to grow the Gregg/Holly relationship, and includes Heather as a super-spoiled teenage antagonist.  The puppy-love relationship for Heather is instead put on Rodrick (who Gregg actually helps get an opportunity to “land” Heather—another example of Gregg growing in the movie in a way entirely absent from the books), which makes far more sense.

While it was a bit harder to see Zachary Gordon as a wimpy kid given he’s grown about a foot since the last film, and has a lanky but muscular young swimmer’s build, he managed to win me over as a goofy kid just not comfortable in his own rapidly growing body.  The tennis scene, where Rowley and Gregg get clobbered by Holly and Gregg’s continued physical nemesis Patti has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and is good example of the broad, physical comedy that actually plays well in this film throughout.

Zahn and Gordon really play well of each other in this one.

The best choice in this movie, however, was to heavily play up something that was more of a side story in the books, and that’s the relationship between Gregg and his Dad Frank.  Partly, playing this up gave the movie more of a soul, as it became a morality play about responsibility, deception, consequences, and redemption.  But, really, it was a great choice because it allowed more screen time for Steve Zahn, who plays Frank.  I think Zahn is an undervalued commodity in Hollywood, as his physical acting, from body use to facial expressions, is one of the best in modern comedy.  The “dinner scene” where the dog gets hold of the family roast, is hilarious only because of how Zahn and Gordon play it.  Zahn’s performance, to me, makes this movie even more than the sum of its parts, and the best yet in the series.

Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
See the movie.  Skip the book.  If for some reason the movie inspires a desire to read the series, do check out my Read It Then See It post as I think I’ve come up with some ideas about how to make a very thin book into something you can actually have a good talk about with your kids.

Oh, and one other plus for the movie is that it has a great trailer to The Hobbit in front of it.  That happens to be next up for the Read It Then See It series, so stay tuned for that one coming soon.