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HAIL, CAESAR! (Blu-ray combo)

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HailCaesarcoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2016, 106 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve often thought that there are two main types of comedy: joke- and gag-filled ones that go for nonstop laughs, whether high brow or low, and the more subtle offbeat satires that make you smile with recognition, whether dark or infused with the positive energy of nostalgia and homage. The latter is the preferred style of people like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, so don’t be misled by a Hail, Caesar! trailer that was edited to showcase all the laugh-out-loud moments in the film. People who see the term “comedy” and think ha-ha funny, be warned: Hail, Caesar! isn’t as much LOL as it is a gentle satire and loving tribute to the final years of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the genre films that were mass produced on big-studio back-lot sound stages.

That means, for families wondering if this PG-13 movie is just the ticket for home movie night, the answer is yes—but only if your kids are older and have an intellectual curiosity that delights in seeing flawed individuals making their way through a life that offers moments of absurdity. It’s a yes, too, if your children can appreciate period films and the stories they tell that differ so much from our contemporary world. Tonally, Hail, Caesar! is like Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with less quirkiness, and visually it’s like watching movies made in the early 1950s. That makes for a winning combination unless your kid thinks old movies (and facsimiles like this) are boring.

As they did with Barton Fink (1991), Ethan and Joel Coen revisit the world of Hollywood unmasked, where left-leaning intellectuals and powerful desk jockeys are funny in themselves, as politicians were in Daumier’s time—so much so that the 19th-century political cartoonist had only to draw them as they were and trust that it would be enough to make his audience smile. Hail, Caesar! operates along the same lines.

HailCaesarscreen1Trailers and the title make Hail, Caesar! look more Roman epic than it is. This film isn’t about the making of a single picture, as we saw in Hitchcock or My Week with Marilyn. The plot follows a day in the life of studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures whose main job, it seems, is “fixer”—the troubleshooter who keeps the cameras and publicity juggernaut rolling. Eddie has been approached by Lockheed Corporation to take an executive position with them, but he clearly loves being a part of the movie business—enough to make him stay? That’s the $50,000 question.

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AGENT CODY BANKS (Blu-ray)

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AgentCodyBankscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No, but darned close
2003, 102 min., Color
Olive Films
Rated PG for action violence, mild language, and some sexual content
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

If you’re expecting Agent Cody Banks to be a cheap knock-off of Spy Kids ratcheted up a notch for the hormone-heavy teen set, director Harald Zwart’s first action outing may surprise you. Banks, Cody Banks, has the gadgets, the girls, the villains, the chases, the pyrotechnics, and the outstanding special effects to keep pace with middle-of-the-pack Bond flicks. Except that the sexual innuendos are tame by comparison, and the only consummation is a good-bye kiss at the end. It is, after all, rated PG, though there are more than a few scenes of peril and one graphic body-eating scene reminiscent of the face-melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Besides action there’s plenty of humor in this film (a driver’s ed scene is classic), and the premise itself is fun. Parents who think their darlings are off at summer camp have no idea that a group of them are really being trained as junior secret agents. When a scientist (Martin Donovan) develops “nanobots,” microscopic robots that can be programmed to eat pretty much anything, the evil organization ERIS, led by the swaggeringly sinister Brinkman (Ian McShane), cons and bullies Dr. Connors into working for them. To find out what’s going on and to thwart them, the CIA assigns its first teen agent to get close to the scientist’s daughter, Natalie (Hilary Duff).

AgentCodyBanksscreenFans of the old TV series Malcolm in the Middle may be surprised at how natural TV star Frankie Muniz seems as a junior agent with one main problem: he doesn’t know how to talk to girls. As a teen Everyguy and reticent, almost painfully shy hero ala Timothy Dalton’s James Bond, he’s absolutely believable. But it was inspired casting to give The Mummy a part as Brinkman’s scarred and shaven henchman. As Molay, Arnold Vosloo is as memorably menacing as Jaws, Odd Job, or the best of the Bond villains. And Angie Harmon, the adult “handler”/partner who dresses retro in skin-tight clothes and acts unabashedly Emma Peel-like, has surprisingly good chemistry with Muniz. When the doctor disappears, then his daughter, it’s up to those unlikely partners to save them . . . and, of course, the world.

Zwart really manages to tap into the heart of teenage angst with Agent Cody Banks. Aside from the awkwardness around girls, there’s the importance of driving, encounters with bullies, chore-avoidance, the teasing siblings and friends, overly protective parents, and an ensemble of extras that makes us believe that world. Layer a spy plot on top of that, and you’ve got an entertaining blend of teen life and spy life, much more believable than the hard-to-fathom TV world of Scarecrow and Mrs. King, where a housewife was the agent and her kids the clueless ones. In Agent Cody Banks, the action never sags, and maybe that’s because Zwart was influenced by so many good films.

Astute viewers will spot homages to Dr. Strangelove, Austin Powers, Our Man Flint, Die Hard, Back to the Future, Spy Kids, and, of course, a number of the Bond films. It’s a good film for families who think their kids aren’t quite ready for Bond—even the tamer Sean Connery and Roger Moore films.

Language: Pretty mild, actually, with around a dozen lesser obscenities mouthed, often muted
Sex: An adult woman pulls the towel off a boy in a locker room, and the same woman covers herself when Cody tries on his X-ray glasses and stares at her chest
Violence: A man is eaten inside out by nanobots, a young boy is imperiled inside a runaway car, and there’s typical action violence (martial arts, fighting, explosions)
Adult situations: No smoking or drinking, which makes this ride Bond with training wheels
Takeaway: The Bond films never feel dated, and neither does Agent Cody Banks. It still plays well, and for that credit the special effects that compare favorably to today’s films and the fact that high school never seems to change.

ZOOLANDER NO. 2: THE MAGNUM EDITION (Blu-ray combo)

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Zoolander2coverGrade: C
Entire family: No
2016, 102 min., Color
Paramount
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS: X, DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Fifteen years after Zoolander (2001) registered somewhere around the B- range on the cult comedy scale, along comes the sequel that fans never thought would happen. Yet Zoolander No. 2 feels like an uninspired knockoff rushed into production to take advantage of the first film’s popularity.

Oh, there are a few wickedly funny gags—as when Justin Bieber is hunted down and machine-gunned to death by an assassin who, like a true dis-Belieber, keeps firing much longer than necessary. And Bieber, in cameo, provides the punch line: using his dying moment to Instagram a photo of himself. But for the most part the jokes fall flat, and even the comedy of character seems cramped by the script’s far-fetched plot and pedestrian dialogue.

The original Zoolander probably worked as well as it did because the outrageous characters were balanced by a satiric plot that at least made some sense. Egotistical male model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) lost his top male model crown to the upstart Hansel (Owen Wilson), and lost his marbles in the process. Enter the evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell), who, teamed with modeling agent Maury Ballstein (Jerry Stiller), act on behalf of the entire fashion industry, which will collapse if they can no longer obtain cheap child labor in Malaysia. And that’s just what could happen after a new progressive Prime Minister wins election in that Asian country. They decide to program a brainless assassin, and who’s more vacuous, and, since his rapid decline, more ripe for manipulation than Derek Zoolander?

Zoolander No. 2 begins with both former top male models in seclusion following the collapse of a building that Derek built with “popsicle sticks and glue,” during which Derek’s beloved wife Matilda (Christine Taylor) was killed and Hansel, who had just been hanging out, was horribly, facially disfigured. Many years afterwards both receive a visit from Billy Zane, who Zoolander2screenpersuades them to attend a House of Atoz fashion show. For Derek, the added incentive is to resume living a productive life so he can regain custody of Derek Jr., whom he lost because of parental neglect (he couldn’t make spaghetti sauce—seriously). But someone is also systematically killing the world’s pop stars, and an apparent Interpol agent (Penélope Cruz as Valentina) asks for their help. Meanwhile, Mugatu has been in a special prison, and somehow Derek waltzes in and Mugatu waltzes out. And new models like the androgynous All (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the hipster Don Atari (Kyle Moody) have taken over the runway.

Stiller, who directed and produced this sequel, has a lot of friends, and almost all of them make an appearance. Yet even the cameos, which are normally a source of delight, seem to be more of a “huh” moment, again because the whole sequel seems to fall flat. Appearances by Katie Couric, Jim Lehrer, Christiane Amanpour, Jane Pauley, Justin Theroux, Mila Jovovich, Matt Lauer, Kristen Wiig, Susan Boyle, Andy Dick, Olivia Munn, Naomi Campbell, Ariana Grande, Willie Nelson, Katy Perry, Sting, M.C. Hammer, John Malkovich, Tommy Hilfiger, Kate Moss, and a host of fashion icons don’t seem to add any effervescence. And there’s no hilariously stupid-but-energetic scene to match the one from the first film, in which Derek’s equally dim-witted male model friends have a gasoline war at a gas station, frolicking as if for a photographer, only to explode when someone decides to light a match.

Is Zoolander No. 2 bad enough to take the second half of its title as an ironic appraisal? No, because there are still a few scenes that will make you smile, and if you’re a fan of the first film there’s still Wilson and Stiller in character that are fun to watch. But laugh-out-loud moments are harder to come by in the sequel, and for that you can thank the writers: Stiller, Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg. For whatever reason, their “wouldn’t it be funny if” gauges were malfunctioning.

Language: one muttered f-bomb and milder swear words (bitch, bastard, damn, hell, whore) used throughout
Sex: Talk of orgies and masturbation, a woman puts a man’s hands on her breasts
Violence: Bieber’s gun-down, several stabbings
Adult situations: In addition to what’s been mentioned, just a weird everybody’s pregnant in Hansel’s family scene
Takeaway: You’d think after 15 years they could come up with something a little funnier. As is, Zoolander No. 2 is really really really ridiculously average at best.

CAROL + 2: THE ORIGINAL QUEENS OF COMEDY (DVD)

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Carolplus2coverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes (Once Upon a Mattress)
1963-1972, 277 min., Color and black-and-white
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (Once would be G, the others PG)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

The Carol Burnett Show aired from 1967-78, making it one of the last yet longest running of the old vaudeville-inspired variety shows that combined song and dance with sketch comedy. Burnett broke into TV as a regular on The Garry Moore Show and in 1966 was given her own TV special. The network wanted her to ask Lucille Ball to guest star, as well as the Tony Award-winning Zero Mostel, who was currently appearing on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both said yes, and the result is Carol + 2, a one-hour special that all but set the format for The Carol Burnett Show to follow.

Carol + 2 is a part of television history, and for general fans it will be the gem on this DVD, which (sorry, Mr. Mostel) is being marketed as Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy. But it’s not the big draw for families with children. The reason to buy this DVD, if you have children, is the colorful TV movie version of the beloved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” starring Burnett as the princess.

Burnett got her big break in 1959 as a 26 year old when she was cast by the legendary George Abbott to star in the off-Broadway production of a new show based on that fairy tale, and Once Upon a Mattress quickly moved on Broadway for a total run of 244 performances. Burnett earned a Tony nomination for her role as Princess Winifred the Woebegone, and as a TV personality she would star in three special televised productions of Once Upon a Mattress: in 1966, 1972, and 2005, the latter in which she would play the queen rather than the unconventional princess. The version on this DVD is the 1972 special, which is indeed special because Jack Gilford and Jane White reprise their original off-Broadway roles as King Sextimus and Queen Aggravain.

Carolplus2screen1Once Upon a Mattress is aimed at families, which is made clear from the beginning as Burnett reads and shares an abbreviated picture-book version of the fairy tale, after which we’re told we’re about to see the “adult version” of what really happened. Don’t be alarmed. Even your four year old can watch and enjoy this production, which sports outrageous and colorful costumes and lines that are delivered slowly enough that the smallest children won’t need much in the way of narrative summary. Once Upon a Mattress is an engaging 90-minute romp that showcases Burnett’s talents as a physical comedienne and also features verbal comedy, singing, and dancing.

The plot is simple, yet, like so many fairy tales, timeless. Queen Aggravain is so domineering that her husband, the king, has been rendered unable to speak. Communicating only in pantomime, he’s like the fifth Marx Brother. Their son, Prince Dauntless (Ken Berry), is also dominated by the queen, yet this mama’s boy, despite being in his mid-thirties, yearns to marry. Trouble is, he can only marry a true princess, and Mama devises a different test each time so devious that none of the princesses who visit the castle are ever able to pass. When a rain-drenched Princess Winifred (who prefers to be called “Fred”) turns up on the doorstep, the vetting process begins anew. Children will especially get a kick out of a “dance off” in which Fred instantly masters the silliest local folk dance and outlasts everyone else in the kingdom. The Queen tells the princess that she needs to get her sleep because the big test will be tomorrow, when in fact the test is whether she can detect a tiny pea placed underneath a stack of 20 mattresses. The “adult version” is that this happily-ever-after tale didn’t come about because Fred was indeed able to detect that pea. She had a little help. Bernadette Peters stars as Lady Larkin, while Carol Burnett Show regular Lyle Waggoner appears as Sir Studley, and Wally Cox (who gave voice to the TV cartoon Underdog) narrates as The Jester. Look closely and you’ll even see a cameo by Kermit the Frog. All in all, it’s a highly entertaining 90-minute TV musical special.

Carolplus2screen2Carol + 2 is geared more for adults than families, and while it’s great to see two of television’s First Ladies perform together and Zero Mostel is as wild-eyed and manic as ever, the sketches and performances are a mixed bag. The funniest might be the opening sketch featuring Burnett and Mostel as a married couple grown spiteful of each other who find out briefly that a mistake means they’re not married after all . . . and that changes the way they see each other. Close behind is “Goodbye Baby,” in which Ball plays an older sister who drops in for a visit on her way to her annual vacation. Burnett is the younger sister with a baby buggy in the park who insists that her sister not leave until she hears the little guy say “Goodbye.” Of course, as with all sketch comedy, things escalate, and while the ending might be a little far-fetched it’s the progression that’s fun to watch. Some of the other sketches are less successful, but Ball and Burnett sing a spirited song about “Chutzpah” as Hollywood charwomen, and this one-hour color special gives contemporary audiences a chance to see three legendary talents at work.

Thrown in as a bonus feature is the very first black-and-white Charwoman sketch that Burnett performed as part of her first special, An Evening with Carol Burnett. It was a character that, animated, would become part of her long-running TV show’s title credits. This 1963 sketch is more of a historical artifact than a family entertainment, though Burnett’s introduction to it, as with her introductions to the two TV specials included on this DVD, is nice to have.

THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 5 (DVD)

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WonderYears5coverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No, age 10 and older
1992-93, 721 min., Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Rated TV-PG for smoking, drinking, and some adult situations
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B-
Season 5 opening
Amazon link

The Wonder Years is a rarity among TV sitcoms because it’s both original and authentic. You’ll find few familiar or recycled sitcom plots here, and a voiceover narration by an adult Kevin replaces a laugh track because in addition to being funny The Wonder Years also provides a poignant account of one boy’s coming of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The focus may be on Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), and the time period may be nostalgic for some and mythic for others who watch, but the situations, emotions, and outcomes are universal. It’s why the show still works, even though it aired from 1988-1993.

You don’t have to have seen the first four seasons to appreciate Season 5, which offers the added bonus for Friends fans of featuring David Schwimmer in four episodes as the serious boyfriend of Kevin’s sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo)—both of whom appear in bonus feature interviews.

Though The Wonder Years six-season arc charts the on-again-off-again relationship between childhood friends and sweethearts Kevin and Winnie (Danica McKellar), they’re on “break” Season 5, which finds a 15-year-old Kevin experimenting with other girls. Though the series remains as innocent as ever, this age pushes the writers into territory that includes never-used condoms hopefully carried in wallets. This season Kevin gets his driver’s license, but that episode is followed by one in which Grandpa Arnold needs to give up his license because of aging. The writers for this show have always looked for ways in which a single idea could resonate or how a simple concept could be expanded into the kind of complex situation that most often mirrors “real life.”

WonderYears5screenThis season Kevin crushes on a young smoker while on a family vacation, he endures a first day of high school that turns into his worst nightmare, he wrestles with a first job and first boss, he gets in the middle of a Grease-style high school couple’s problems, he and three friends talk an older boy into trying for his driver’s license so they can all go “cruising” for girls, he finds himself kissed by his older brother Wayne’s (Jason Hervey) girlfriend, he joins a losing soccer team, he tries to treat his father to a dinner that’s ruined by Dad’s (Dan Lauria) annoyance with his sister, he tries to get out of attending the annual Christmas party his family throws for the neighborhood, his family friendship with Paul’s (Josh Saviano) family is threatened when the latter comes into money, a popular black teacher gets in trouble for her unorthodox methods, Wayne decides to join the Army, Kevin becomes friends with the school’s basketball star, he stumbles through dates with different girls, he and friends plan to sneak into an R-rated movie, he hosts a poker party when his parents leave town for the weekend, and the whole family is drawn into Karen’s pre-marital drama. By season’s end, Kevin is thinking hard about getting back with Winnie.

This four-DVD set (single sided discs on plastic non-overlapping “pages”) features 24 episodes, and there isn’t a single one I’d rate lower than a B-. Most fall in the A- range, and this season the series, known for its vintage music, features music by The Archies, Frankie Avalon, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Joan Baez, Bread, James Brown, The Byrds, Canned Heat, Patsy Kline, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, The Platters, Linda Ronstadt, Sly & the Family Stone, Sonny & Cher, Ringo Starr, The Stylistics, Traffic, The Turtles, Muddy Waters, and Andy Williams.

THE SUM OF US (Blu-ray)

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SumofUscoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1994, 100 min., Color
Olive Films
Rated R for language, sex talk and sexual situations
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Russell Crowe’s first appearances in feature films came in 1990, when the New Zealander began working in the Australian film industry. Just two years later Crowe would be cast to star as a tough skinhead in Romper Stomper, while in 1994 he would show his sensitive side playing a dutiful gay son in The Sum of Us—the last Australian film he would make before taking his talents to Hollywood.

For that reason alone, The Sum of Us will be of interest to movie-lovers—though it would be an unusual and unlikely choice for family viewing, unless the family wanted to face issues like sexual orientation and elder care head-on. David Stevens adapted his own play for the screen, and he and directors Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling are absolutely clear about what message they want audiences to take away from the film: Life is short; love people for who they are, as they are not an aberration, but the sum of family members who passed on their DNA or helped shape them in other ways.

The Sum of Us is a study in contrasts. Widower Harry Mitchell (Jack Thompson, The Man from Snowy River) lives with his adult gay son, Jeff (Crowe), and Harry is the poster child for unconditional parental love. He not only accepts his son for who SumofUsscreenhe is, but he tries to understand what it means to be gay—yes, that includes going to clubs with his son—and he encourages his son to talk openly about his relationships. However, when Jeff brings his latest boyfriend-to-be home, Greg (John Polson) is shocked by Harry’s openness. Greg’s parents don’t even know he’s gay, and when they find out, the father wants nothing more to do with his son and the mother is so shocked into dumb silence that she can’t stop the father from kicking the young man out of the house. It’s clear which way is right, if for no other reason than Harry himself is a likeable, blunt force of nature. He loves life and makes it clear how much he loves his son and accepts him and everything he does. The film’s other main contrast comes from a woman that Harry meets through a dating service. Joyce (Deborah Kennedy) got divorced after her husband left her and she’s ready for love again. With Harry, she seems to have found it. But like Greg’s parents, she has a hard time dealing with homosexuality. Will it get in the way of her happiness and Harry’s? Will Greg and Jeff get together despite Greg’s discomfort over Harry’s full knowledge of what they do in the sack?

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RICH KIDS (1979) (Blu-ray)

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RichKidscoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: No
1979, 97 min., Color
Olive Films
Rated PG for mild language and sexual situations
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Clip
Amazon link

Though it’s decades old, Rich Kids ought to be the kind of film that would interest families with adolescent children. It stars two engaging young actors (Trini Alvarado, Jeremy Levy) who play upper-crust offspring of Upper West Side parents who are either divorced or in the process of divorcing. It’s a kids’ point-of-view film with very few scenes that don’t feature the young characters. And the focus—an opposite gender friendship that leads to some innocent experimentation—would seem to be timeless.

Unfortunately, the pacing of ‘70s films is a liability for many of today’s young viewers, who will also find this character-driven coming-of-age drama relatively plotless compared to today’s movies. Your not-so-rich kids might reach for their cell phones or hand-held gaming systems to “multitask” during this one.

RichKidsscreen1That’s too bad, because the acting is superb, and older viewers will delight in seeing a very young-looking 34-year-old John Lithgow as the father of 12-year-old Franny, who knows her father sneaks home at 5 a.m. every day to hide that he spends the night elsewhere. Precocious and left on her own a lot, Franny has somehow picked up a copy of The Joy of Sex, which she studies and keeps hidden behind her childhood books. Her mother (Kathryn Walker) has her own preoccupations, and because that includes another man we suspect that Franny’s racy reading isn’t just the result of sexual curiosity, but perhaps self-guided “homework” to try to understand what’s happening to her parents and their family unit.

At school Franny has bonded with Jamie, whose parents are already divorced and caught up in their new lives, leaving him on the periphery or bouncing back and forth between houses. The plot is simple, though it stretches the limits of belief. Franny wants to have a sleepover with Jamie and asks her workaholic mother when she’s half asleep. Later, when Mom learns that Jamie is a boy, she and her husband still allow her daughter to go to Jamie’s house because “she said it was okay.” Meanwhile, Jamie’s dad leaves the kids alone in his bachelor pad while he goes off in his sports car with his latest conquest, despite assuring Franny’s parents that the kids would be supervised. That’s the plot in a nutshell, and the illogical and irresponsible parental behavior that puts the two rich kids in a position to experiment may bother older viewers as much as the plotless narrative might turn off the kids. Still, the performances are worth watching, and if young viewers are warned in advance that Rich Kids is a slower-moving character-driven film they might be able to enjoy them and the read-between-the-lines nuances of the film.

Language: Some mild swearwords
Sex: Two children in a bubble bath, perhaps innocent, perhaps not; two children in pajamas play wrestling with each other and sexual tension
Violence: None
Adult situations: None, apart from talk of affairs and that bachelor pad
Takeaway: Wes Anderson did a better job of exploring similar territory in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), a PG-13 rated adventure-comedy-drama.

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