Family Filmgoer reviews ‘Love Is Strange’ and ‘The Trip to Italy’


Left to right: Charlie Tahan as Joey, Darren Burrows as Elliot and John Lithgow as Ben in “Love Is Strange.” (Jeong Park/Sony Pictures Classics)
August 28, 2014
10 and older

A Letter to Momo (Unrated).  A beautifully hand-drawn Japanese animated film, “A Letter to Momo” will engage the emotions and imaginations of kids 10 and older, but only if they are of a mature, meditative nature. The two-hour length, slow pace of some scenes, subtlety of the emotions, and task of reading subtitles will try the patience of others. (Landmark’s E Street Cinema is showing both subtitled and English-dubbed versions of the film.) Momo, a young girl, moves with her mom to a small Japanese island after the death of her oceanographer dad in a shipwreck. Momo’s mom grieves privately. Momo barely speaks, avoids friendship and can’t forget that she said mean things to her dad just before he left. In the attic of their new home, Momo encounters a trio of spirits with gargoyle faces inspired by Japanese mythology. Petrified at first, she grows comfortable with the goblins, who aren’t visible to others, though they steal food and act rudely. She learns the reason for their presence, which helps her face her grief and even save her mom from a life-threatening — and emotionally harrowing — asthma attack. 

THE BOTTOM LINE: The goblins have creepier faces than monsters in Hollywood-style animation. They fondly recall their more powerful days, when they could suck out people’s livers. They engage in nose-picking and farcical flatulence. Two angry wild boars chase Momo and the goblins for snatching their young (which are not harmed). Some parents may have religious objections to the film’s take on the afterlife.  

12 and older

When the Game Stands Tall (PG). Religious faith, purity of spirit, hard work and selfless loyalty are the qualities celebrated in this earnest but plodding parable, based on the career of real-life high school football coach Bob Ladouceur. Kids 12 and older who find sports sagas fascinating may click with this one, too. Non-sports-loving kids 12 and older, if they are devout or spiritually searching, may identify with the story. Ladouceur, a.k.a. Coach Lad, leads his 2003 team — some players are fictionalized, others based on real people — through a record-breaking win streak. He preaches to them daily that growing up to be good men will serve them better than victory. A year of travails and tragedy intervenes. Coach Lad learns to balance work, family and faith a bit better.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A player dies in a drive-by shooting, which is stylized and nongraphic, but upsetting. We see the boy’s body loaded into an ambulance and his family racked with grief. Coach Lad, who smokes, suffers a brief but intense heart attack.

PG-13

If I Stay. Of all the young-adult novels recently brought to the screen, “If I Stay,” based on a novel by Gayle Forman, wins the wet-hanky award. Long, repetitive and time-twisting it may be, but it coaxes out tears and sniffles right on schedule, and winningly portrays that movie rarity: a happy family. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Mia, a gifted teen cellist. Her parents, former punk rockers, revel in her achievements. She meets Adam, a budding garage-band star, and they fall tempestuously in love. Then, in an instant, disaster: Mia, her little brother and parents are in a terrible car crash. Mia separates from her injured, comatose body — a soul walking among the living, pondering whether to re-enter the world or disappear into the light. In her voice-over narration, Mia recalls her life.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The car crash unfolds in nongraphic, dreamlike slow motion. The ambulance and operating room scenes do not show much. The script features barnyard profanities, semi-crude sexual slang and the B-word. Mia and Adam are shown in bed together, but not in a sexual situation other than kissing.

R

Love Is Strange. A touching dramatic comedy, “Love Is Strange” will suit the tastes of mature teens 15 and older who long for character-rich tales. Seventy-ish artist Ben (John Lithgow) and 60-ish music teacher George (Alfred Molina) are a gay New York couple who’ve been together for decades and get married once it’s legal. The Catholic school where George works then fires him for violating Church values. The loss of income forces the couple to sell their condo and live separately while they search for a cheaper place. George stays with a pair of police friends, but they’re young and he suffers through many a loud party. Ben moves in with his nephew’s stressed family, where he feels like he’s in the way. Things get sad before they get better, but the bittersweet journey is the prize.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The R rating reflects language, which features some strong profanity and a homophobic slur. A scene with Ben and George in bed together is a chaste cuddle. Characters drink wine.

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Visually ravishing — a brash mix of live-action and digital animation designed to re-create the dark 1950s urban atmospherics of Frank Miller’s graphic novels — this film is not for anyone younger than 17. A gory, sexualized exercise in film noir, this sequel to “Sin City” tallies up points for style, not substance. Bar bouncer Marv, always ready for a battle, takes part in a couple of the tales. The central one involves Dwight, a vulnerable tough guy, unable to get the seductive psychopath Ava out of his head. She plays him for a chump yet again. Cocky young poker player Johnny takes on a crooked politico for high stakes. And club dancer Nancy wants revenge for her lover’s sacrificial suicide.

The bottom line: The bloodletting, a mix of realistic live-action and digitally enhanced graphic-novel styles, encompasses beheadings, disarmings and behandings, as well as point-blank shootings. Sexual situations are numerous and graphic. There is much nudity, though with key bits blurred out. Characters use drugs and booze.

The Trip to Italy (Unrated). Teens 16 and older who bend toward the literary, the gourmet, the brainy and the romance of travel can savor “The Trip to Italy,” even if some of the references and locales aren’t familiar. The funny repartee whizzes by — a mix of poetic quotations and film-nerd trivia — in this semi-fictionalized docu-food-travel-comedy starring Englishman Steve Coogan and Welshman Rob Brydon. This is a sequel to their 2010 film, “The Trip,” in which they toured northern English restaurants. Now they go on a foodie trip to Italy, tracing the haunts of the Romantic poets.

The bottom line: The banter includes lots of strong profanity and occasional crude sexual innuendo. Two people engage in an implied extramarital overnight tryst. Everyone drinks wine. The chatter extends to matters of death and dying.

The November Man . Spy fiction fans 17 and older would do better to catch “A Most Wanted Man” with Philip Seymour Hoffman, which offers subtler, less violent and profane observations about spying in the post-9/11 world. “The November Man,” while smartly acted and well paced, is lurid and bloody. Pierce Brosnan plays a tough-talking, semi-retired CIA operative named Devereaux, called back into action. His mission: Extricate from the Kremlin a female double-agent whom he knows. She has damning information about a prominent Russian politician’s war crimes in Chechnya. After the mission goes bloodily south, Devereaux knows that his CIA colleagues, including a young agent he trained, ambushed him. He wants vengeance, while also protecting a young woman who has more information about the Russian. 

THE BOTTOM LINE: The action is very bloody, with point-blank shootings, close-up stabbings and head-bashings. A young woman has a nightmarish flashback of a rape she endured as a girl — graphic and shown from the man's point-of-view. Topless dancers in a club use suggestive choreography. The R also reflects steaming profanity and obscene misogynist slurs. Characters use drugs, drink and smoke.    

Life  of Crime. Crime movie and crime novel buffs 17 and older could glean some hardboiled Hollywood enjoyment from the darkly funny “Life of Crime,” especially if they like watching criminals mess up. Based on Elmore Leonard's 1978 novel “The Switch,” this film takes place in that era in the Detroit suburbs. A pair of lowlifes (John Hawkes and Mos Def, aka Yasiin Bey) kidnap country-club wife Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston). Her seemingly prosperous, hard-drinking hubby (Tim Robbins), off in the Bahamas with his mistress, has no urge to pay the ransom. Mickey learns more about him from her kidnappers than she ever picked up at home. Soon, nearly everyone's double-dealing everyone else. The creepy guy in whose house the kidnapers hide Mickey proves a scary wild card.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The creepy guy strikes and attempts to rape Mickey, but is thwarted. He also spies on her like a peeping tom and is a closet Nazi. Other mayhem includes lethal gunplay and people hit by cars. There is one explicit sexual situation. Characters smoke pot and drink. Characters use very strong profanity, racial and anti-semitic slurs.

As Above, So Below. For high-schoolers who like their horror flicks low-tech and cerebral, “As Above, So Below” could fit the bill, with its references to Dante’s “Inferno” and other medieval texts and its trip through the catacombs of Paris, built in the late 18th century. Imperfectly executed, yet smartly conceived, the thriller takes a motley sextet of 20-somethings trekking through the catacombs. The whole film consists of videos purportedly shot by them, so the herky-jerky camera work adds to the tension. Scarlett, a brilliant scholar, hopes to use ancient texts and carvings to prove that the medieval art of alchemy — trying to turn base metals into gold — was not junk science but real. This leads her to the Paris catacombs. She recruits an ex who can read ancient languages, a Parisian graffiti artist and his two friends, who know the catacombs. The expedition goes quickly awry, and straight to you-know-where.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A hanged body, tunnels filled with human bones — these are some of the creepiest images. A few in the exploration party sustain serious wounds or die violently — skull cracked by a possessed killer; bodies crushed in hard falls, pushed by unseen forces. This involves blood, but no graphic gore. Startling sound effects, jerky camera work, a claustrophobic setting, spooky lighting and panicky acting conjure some terror, too. A suicide theme crops up periodically. A large explosion occurs in the opening moments.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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