A Place at the Table. Nearly as infuriating as it is poignant, “A Place at the Table” — which is fine for most kids 13 and older — will come as an eye-opener to many teens. The film follows three mothers and their children from different parts of the country who often don’t get the nutrition they need. It explores the effect that hunger has on children’s performance in school as well as on their physical, intellectual and emotional development. It delves into the shrinking effectiveness of government hunger programs and the growth of private church-based initiatives to fill the void. It explains that processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat are much cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables, so families who struggle financially may have an unhealthy diet.
THE BOTTOM LINE: There is nothing graphic in “A Place at the Table” except for intense emotional moments among real people.
Jack the Giant Slayer. At its best, “Jack the Giant Slayer” harks back to the charms of “The Princess Bride.” At its worst, it turns into a “Transformers” movie, only with flesh-and-blood giants instead of mechanized ones. In a sweet prologue, we meet two young children in medieval times. Jack is the son of a poor farmer and Isabelle is a princess in a nearby castle. Each delights in hearing the scary rhymed saga of “Jack the Giant Slayer” read to them. Ten years later, a grown-up Jack, sent into town to sell his horse, defends the honor of Isabelle, who likes to venture out of the palace incognito. When he realizes who she is, Jack knows it’s hopeless, but he’s smitten anyway. He sells his horse to a monk for a bag of beans. There’s a rainstorm that night and Isabelle rides to Jack’s cottage seeking shelter. As they talk, one of the beans falls beneath the cottage and explodes into a beanstalk, carrying the house and Isabelle above the clouds while Jack falls off. The king assigns Elmont, the head of his guards, to take his men up the huge, gnarled stalk to rescue Isabelle. Jack goes, too, as does Isabelle’s conniving fiance, Roderick.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The giants are filthy and ill-mannered with disgusting habits. The action sequences become quite heavy, with stabbings and bone-crushing fights. It is strongly implied that the giants eat victims alive, though it is not depicted in a graphic manner. They put a head in their mouth, then the film cuts away. So, it’s not for viewers younger than 10. The giants’ caves are lined with human bones. Many men fall to their death off the beanstalk.
Dark Skies. Too scary and intense for middle-schoolers, this story of a family intruded upon by space aliens has a lot of psychological nuance and drama. That could resonate with high-schoolers. Suburbanites Lacy and Daniel Barrett are struggling, and he’s between jobs. Their son Jesse hangs out with a crass older boy. Their younger son Sam talks about visits from an invisible “Sand Man.” Unexplained nighttime events in the house, Sam’s drawings of the Sand Man and scary Internet research finally send the parents to an expert on alien invasion.
The bottom line: “Dark Skies” includes creepy visions of “Greys,” with their black eye sockets. The children are shown in danger of alien abduction. Weird happenings include profuse nosebleeds and trances. There are fights and gunfights. Jesse’s pal uses a crass profanity to refer to girls and uses crude but not-too-explicit sexual slang. The boys watch a porn video that sounds steamy but visually never gets too graphic. There is a brief depiction of pot. There is mild profanity, and the parents have an implied sexual situation.
The Gatekeepers. This is a riveting pastiche of lengthy interviews with six former heads of Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet. However, a certain familiarity with the Israel-Palestine struggle and with the history of Israel’s founding puts this documentary well beyond most high-schoolers’ knowledge. Some of the footage of the aftermath of terror attacks and of soldiers vs. protesters in the occupied territories is too graphic or intense for middle-schoolers. For high-schoolers who follow international affairs, the views of the six men interviewed in the film are surprising. Despite their security/anti-terror backgrounds and loyalty to Israel, they support a two-state solution and have grown very critical of Israel’s settlements and its religious right.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The documentary shows very graphic photos and video clips of an Israeli bus blown up, with dead passengers amid crushed metal. Footage of Palestinians being questioned and their houses entered by Israeli soldiers is disturbing, as are photos of two captured Palestinians arrested for hijacking a bus, who were allegedly beaten to death in custody.
Phantom. This Cold War thriller set on a Soviet submarine is a mildish R and okay for most high-schoolers. “Phantom” has the feel of a 1950s live television drama. Ed Harris plays a Soviet submarine captain. Ready to retire, he’s given as his last command a creaky old diesel sub, albeit with nuclear warheads, that marked the start of his career. But once he and his loyal first officer are aboard, they find their authority overridden by a fanatical KGB operative and his “team,” intent on firing the sub’s nuclear missile in a deceptive manner that will trigger a war between the U.S. and China.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Characters do a lot of smoking and drinking. “Phantom” includes instances of lethal gun violence, including a suicide, and a graphic throat-slitting.
Horwitz is a freelance writer. Read her previous reviews at On Parenting.