Avengers: Infinity War

Posted on April 25, 2018 at 1:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references
Profanity: About a dozen bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense action-style peril and violence, chases, explosions, supervillains, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 27, 2018
Copyright Marvel 2018

A two hour and forty minute movie can still feel too short when there are so many of our favorite characters, and that is the good news and the bad news about the much-anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The good news is that we get the ultimate mash-up of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. That means a whole lot of quippy action scenes. My greatest fear was that with so many characters most of them would not have enough time to do much on screen either by way of action or by way of drama, and the pretty good news is that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a good job of giving everyone his or her own space — literally, by sending them off in different directions to keep the interactions manageable, and figuratively, by giving most of them individual character arcs, or, perhaps we should say arc-lettes as they are sketched in just enough to add a little substance sauce to the main course of the action.

The less great news is that the storyline is something of a let-down following the exceptional depth and complexity of “The Black Panther.” As I have said many, many times before, superhero movies depend entirely on the quality of the supervillain, and Erik Killmonger was the top of the line as bad guys go, nuanced, sympathetic, human, and utterly magnetic. Any movie, but especially a fantasy movie, has to be completely clear about the stakes, meaning that in a superhero movie we have to know exactly what the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces are and what they are fighting over. We don’t need a lot of detail; there’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock used to speak so dismissively about the “McGuffin,” whatever it was everyone in the story wants so badly. All we need to know is why it matters, how to get it, and how keep it from the wrong person.

The bad guy here is Thanos (Josh Brolin) a CGI-d Titan of enormous power who is seeing the ultimate power, which he can achieve via the six Infinity Stones. He has a handy glove with spaces for each stone, and once he has them all he can achieve his goal of wiping out half of the life forms in the universe with the snap of his gigantic fingers. Much of the movie consists of him beating up all of the superheroes, a couple of whom are quickly dispatched in the first scene. We hear a lot about how important it is that he be stopped but we do not get many specifics about how his powers work or what, if any, vulnerabilities can be used against him. And that makes the battles more set-pieces, exceptionally well-staged set-pieces than drama. And then, in the middle, almost quiet next to the supernova intensity of the star power, the dazzle to the saturation point of the action scenes, and the Hulk-level heavy lifting of the realignment of the movie MCU to accommodate some thoughtful and even subtle variations on whether it is right to sacrifice one life to save many others.

But mostly, there’s a lot of action. Remember that refugee spaceship at the end of “Thor: Ragnarok?” And the feud between Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, no longer the clean-cut WWII poster boy)? We pick up both as Thanos, the most powerful creature on the planet and the adoptive father of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) arrives in search of the five remaining Infinity Stones he needs to complete the set and wipe out half the universe. It’s time to get the band back together, with some of the team who have been missing in action, like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), having a bit of trouble getting his Hulk on. And the team now includes a high school intern, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who is so new and so in awe that he still calls Iron Man “Mr. Stark.”

Thanos has some nasty henchmen and henchwomen and hench-creatures who show up to help him find the stones. And the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Gamora, join on, with a sulky, now-adolescent Groot who can’t be pried away from his hand-held game device.

There are some very funny moments as the group gets to know each other, a few cheeky pop culture references, and an extended section in Wakanda gives us a chance to spend some more time with some characters who are already fan favorites (How about giving Shuri her own movie, Kevin Feige? And the Dora Milaje?) A few non-Avengers make a strong impression in their brief screen time, especially Peter Dinklage as a giant weapons-maker. But after nearly three hours (and only one after-credits scene?), with some savagely painful losses, it is unsatisfying to leave on the biggest cliffhanger since they freeze-dried Han Solo. There’s a point past which you stop topping yourself and just run out of breath — and that point is when you inform us several times that Thanos has ultimate power and then take us to a planet where there is a weapon that can stop him. There’s an infinite regression/irresistible force-immovable object paradox issue.

This movie is so big it has three superheroes played by superstars named Chris, and I haven’t even gotten to Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, Winston Duke as M’Baku, Paul Bettany as Vision, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Sebastian Stan as Bucky, and Anthony Mackie as Falcon, all of whom get a chance to make an impression that leaves us wanting more. At times it feels like the Fellowship of the Infinity Stones, even approaching the grandeur of the Tolkien trilogy in its scope and the depth of its world-building. Or, I should say, worlds-building. There’s even time for some very sweet romance, and we see how those romantic complications present complicated challenges in the midst of battle. Also, dog monsters.

I trust the Russos to bring it all together with the next chapter. I hope it’s soon.

Parents should know that this film features extended comic-book action-style violence with many characters injured and killed, brief crude humor, and about a dozen strong words.

Family discussion: How many times did someone in the film have to decide whether it was worth sacrificing one life to save many others? Which superheroes were better at cooperating and why? Why does Thanos think he is right?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Iron Man,” “The Avengers,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “The Black Panther”

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Rampage

Posted on April 11, 2018 at 4:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language, and crude gestures
Profanity: About a dozen bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and action-style violence with chases, explosions, guns, bombs, monsters, many human and animal characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 13, 2018

Copyright New Line Cinema 2018
Pay attention, my friends, this one is a little bit tricky. In his last movie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played an avatar in a movie about a video game. In this one, he plays a human in a movie based on a video game, though in the video game, big in arcades in the 1980’s, it was the animals who were the avatars, and your task as player was to help them destroy the city while Johnson’s human character in the film is there to protect it.

Still with me?

Well, maybe “human” does not adequately describe Johnson’s character, the primatologist/Special Forces veteran Davis Okoye, the essence of movie hero, always ready with his fists or a quip or both at the same time. And, you know, he looks like The Rock.

Okoye works at a San Diego animal preserve, where he is especially close to an albino gorilla named George. They communicate via sign language. And it’s all downright Edenic until George is hit with spray from one of three canisters of gene-altering material that “edit” his DNA to make him grow to King Kong size and make him furious, aggressive, and destructive.

With the help of the beautiful scientist who developed the gene-editing juice, hoping to help humanity and not in any way aware that the evil corporation she was working for was planning to weaponize it. Naomie Harris plays Dr. Kate Caldwell, and Jake Lacy and Malin Akerman are the oh-so-evil brother and sister who run the corporation. Well, she’s evil; he’s way over his head. Then there’s Joe Manganiello as a mercenary hired by the evil sister, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a FBI official with a Southern accent, and a walloping lot of CGI as the three monsters — those two other canisters — Okoye has to find a way to stop.

If they ever give out an Oscar for efficiency of set-up, this movie is a contender. It quickly assigns an attribute to each character and lets us know immediately what the stakes are in every scene. Director Brad Peyton (“San Andreas,” also starring Johnson) knows we’re here for the action, and spends just enough time between scenes of shootouts, explosions, and chases to remind us why we should care what happens to the characters. Manganiello’s character has a big scar on his face, so we know he’s tough. The evil sister says, “There’s a reason we were doing these experiments in space and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity,” just to make it clear that she is the bad guy. In case we missed it the first time, when her hapless brother says, “You can’t liquidate all your problems,” she snaps back, “Agree to disagree.”

And Dr. Kate lies to her boss on the phone, so we know that she is not a rule follower. Plus, we glimpse a photo in her apartment showing her hugging a cancer patient, so we know she is nice and probably bereaved. Morgan’s FBI character has a seen-it-all, heard-it-all look but a bit of a twinkle in his eye. And a homing device has the three giant, hungry, and very hostile animals going full-speed to Chicago.

Does any of it make sense? Not really. Do we care? Not really. Just don’t think too hard about how long it would take for debris to fall from space, what condition it might be in, or how long it would take an antidote to work. This is a movie based on an arcade game, and it is much better than most game-based films.

In part that is because the game was from the 80’s and didn’t really have a storyline, so there was no risk of being too faithful or not faithful enough, and in part because it never takes itself too seriously. It takes the stunts and action seriously, though. There’s a wow of a plane crash some good moments in the midst of a massive destruction of Chicago’s Loop. And George (motion capture actor Jason Liles) is, if not realistic, believable. Johnson is right in his sweet spot here, and so are we, with a popcorn treat to kick off the summer season.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and action-style violence with chases, explosions, guns, bombs, monsters, many human and animal characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, some strong language, and some crude humor.

Family discussion: Who should make the rules about genetic experimentation? Who in this film follows orders and who does not? Why did Davis say he was not a “people person?”

If you like this, try: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Transformers”

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Ready Player One

Posted on March 28, 2018 at 4:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language
Profanity: Brief strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, real and virtual weapons, chases, and explosions, arson, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 30, 2018

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
You know that one perfect high note in the A-Ha song, “Take on Me?” The goosebumpy bliss of it? “Ready Player One,” with endless callbacks to the era of A-Ha, is that note as a movie, set in the future, in love with the past, and uncannily right of this exact moment. There could be no better director than Steven Spielberg to take on this movie about a virtual game filled with the cultural touchstones of the 1980’s, a decade he helped define for the generation who will now be taking their children to this film and re-entering their own childhoods. We are all Marty McFly, now, going back to the future in a Delorean.

Spielberg is as good as anyone has ever been at the craft of cinematic storytelling, and there has never been a story more suited to that craft than this one, based on the book by first-time author Ernest Cline, who co-scripted and co-produced, and who admits that his world view was in large part formed by the Spielberg movies he watched as a kid in the 1980’s. There is a lot of nostalgia in the film, but also themes that could have come from today’s news: the role of technology as a distraction and as an invasion of privacy and underminer of democracy and the idea of teenagers saving the world.

It is Columbus, Ohio, 2045, when “people have stopped trying to fix problems and are just trying to outlive them.” The world is a bleak and broken place and most people spend most of their time escaping reality via a massive, enthralling online world called The Oasis, invented by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) a shy, obsessive genius who is a combination of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Walt Disney, and Willy Wonka. “They come for all the things they can do,” we hear, “but stay for all the things they can be.” Players can design their own avatar personas any way they want — with antlers or wings, beautiful or ugly, super-powerful, purple, any age, gender, or species.

Five years before this story begins, Halliday died, leaving his half-trillion dollar empire and sole control of The Oasis to whomever was the first to discover the “Easter egg”* hidden in the game, which required agility, puzzle-solving, and a comprehensive knowledge of Halliday’s life and the popular culture he immersed himself in as a child in the 1980’s.

In five years, no one has even found the first of the three keys that lead to the egg. Many people have given up. Those still seeking it are called “gunters” (egg hunters). Wade Watts (“Mud’s” Tye Sheridan) is a teenage orphan living with his aunt and her latest in a series of abusive boyfriends in what is essentially a vertical trailer park called The Stacks. The film’s opening scene is brilliantly designed, as the camera pans down a dingy, jerrybuilt column of shabby capsules, showing each occupant caught up in a different virtual reality scenario, from boxing to pole dancing, with just one woman growing real-life flowers, the only person who even notices that Wade is there.

Wade signs into The Oasis, using haptic** gloves and a virtual reality eyepiece, for yet another try at crossing a virtual version of a Manhattan bridge guarded by King Kong. His avatar is Parzival***, who drives a Delorean, and he has an online friend, an enormous, mechanically-gifted man named Aech (I won’t reveal the voice performer to avoid spoilers). And he is intrigued by a female avatar named Art3mis (again, no spoilers) who rides the red motorcycle from the Akira video game. While Parzival and Art3mis both insist they will not “clan up” (team up with other players, they end up forming an alliance that includes two other avatars, Sho and Daito.

The Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is head of the rival online company, Innovative Online Industries, and he wants to be the one to find the egg so he can make a lot of money selling ads (he has determined the exact number of ads that can bombard users “before inducing seizures,” he crisply informs his staff) and charging for access. IOI has hundreds of researchers and gamers trying to find the egg. And it operates “Loyalty Centers,” essentially debtors prisons, where those who owe the company money have to work it off under brutal and impossibly Sissiphusian conditions.

Wade has to locate three keys and solve clues involving not just logic and intense research but empathy, clues that turn out to be wisely selected by Halliday, Willie Wonka-style, to find the right person to take over the Oasis. Spielberg himself has to locate three keys as a filmmaker and does so with as much grace, heart, and integrity as Wade, his own avatar through the story. The copper key is the game level, the action scenes and the next-level special effects, including the chase across the Manhattan bridge and a stunning set piece inside the Stanley Kubrick movie, The Shining, repurposed here with bravura wit and skill. The jade key is the nostalgia, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of 80’s references, from the iconic and enduring to the obscure and forgotten. It is not, as is too often the case, shortcuts to play into the audience’s emotions, but deployed, again, with consummate wit and skill as commentary, as surprise, and as a reminder of our connections to the pop culture that first excited and engaged us. And the crystal key, well, it has been said often that the theme of all Spielberg movies is finding your way home. Wade is a 21st century Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland — or David in “WarGames,” exploring a land of infinite magic and wonder — and danger — but learning that there’s no place like home.

*The use of the term “Easter egg” to describe secret features originates from the 1979 video game Adventure for the Atari 2600 game console, programmed by employee Warren Robinett.

**They make it possible for the wearer to “feel” or “touch” virtual characters and objects.

***Named for one of King Arthur’s knights, who devoted his life to the search for the Holy Grail.

Parents should know that this film includes extended real world and virtual peril and violence including chases, explosions, weapons, murder, brief crude humor, some sexual references, brief strong language

Family discussion: What would your avatar be in the Oasis and why? Why would people stop trying to fix problems? What would Sorrento do with the Oasis and how would users respond?

If you like this, try: The book by Ernest Cline and movies that this one refers to, including “The Shining,” “The Iron Giant,” and “Back to the Future”

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Pacific Rim Uprising

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:06 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with disturbing images, giant robots, alien monsters, explosions, mass destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
I know you’re all eager to hear whether you will understand this movie if you haven’t seen (or, more likely, saw and forgot) the first one. Here is my answer: you won’t understand this film even if you did see and remember the first one and it just doesn’t matter. The first one was about giant robots fighting alien monsters and it ended with Idris Elba giving a great pep talk to the troops and then sacrificing himself to save the world.

Second verse, same as the first. Even bigger robots.  Even meaner monster aliens.  Even dumber dialogue.  Buildings knocked down and shattered as though they were made of eggshells.  A volcano. Plus mutant robot monster aliens.  A near-feral girl with a gift for creating robots.  A pilot with daddy issues.

And, I can’t help it, since it takes two pilots who mind-meld in a process called “drift” to operate the giant robots called Jaegers in perfect synchronization, every time they do it I keep thinking they’re playing Dance Dance Revolution.

That would be only slightly more silly than the actual storyline (hmm, a “Step Up”/”Pacific Rim” crossover — I offer this idea freely, noting that there is a promise of a third chapter at the end of the film).

“Star Wars'” John Boyega (who also co-produced) plays Jake, the son of the Idris Elba character. As he explains in a striking opening scene, the world has in some ways returned to normal after the defeat of the Kaiju monsters, though their enormous skeletons are still a reminder of the fight, one right next to the pool where Jake is enjoying a life of girls and parties. He has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps as a pilot or a hero. Like his “Star Wars” pal Rey, he is a scavenger, looking Jaeger robot junkyards. But things go wrong when a helmeted motorcycle rider steals the special part he promised to some very unforgiving guys. I note here the famous Roger Ebert rule that a mysterious helmeted figure will always turn out to be female. Yes, Amara (Cailee Spaeny) is not only female but young, and a Shuri-like tech whiz who is building her own Jaeger. The two of them end up in jail, and then, of course, sent to pilot training. “Ender’s Game”-style, younger recruits are taken because they are better at drifting.

When they arrive, Amara excitedly recognizes all the various Jaegers as a way of reintroducing us to them, and, discovering who Jake is, reminds us again that his father was a hero and he is not too happy about that. The tough, this-is-serious-business commanding officer is Nate (Scott Eastwood, channeling his dad), who says things like, “You and I both know you could have been great.”

There’s also a lot of “We need it now.” “It can’t be done.” “Do it anyway” “I need more time!” “We don’t have any!” “You got this!” “Let’s do this!” “Will it work?” “One way to find out!” talk and a lot of “20 kilometers to impact” military/tech language. And Jake says he can’t give a pep talk like his dad but he does. Does it include “This is OUR time!” Yes, it does.

The good thing is that the movie does not just know how silly it is — it embraces the silliness. The better thing is that it has EVEN BIGGER ROBOTS fighting EVEN BIGGER MUTANT ROBOT ALIENS! No matter how dumb it gets, no matter that the robots and monsters have more personality than the humans, no matter how much it seems like a mash-up of “Transformers,” “Ender’s Game,” “Starship Troopers,” and anime, it is undeniably fun to see robots bashing monsters, and thankfully there isn’t much in between the battles to slow things down.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, scary monsters, some disturbing images, sad death of parents, issues of sacrifice, brief strong language, brief crude humor

Family discussion: Why did Jake insist that he was not like his father? How do you think the drift works? How do you prevent being defined by other people?

If you like this, try: The first “Pacific Rim,” “Ender’s Game,” and “Starship Troopers”

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Tomb Raider

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:03 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong language (s-words, one mouthed f-word)
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, chases, guns, fights, explosions, many characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
A video game needs just enough narrative to add some stakes to the challenges. We care more about getting the avatar from A to B if there is a reason — a treasure, escaping the bad guys, revenge. And the action scenes need just enough complexity to hold our interest. The “reason” equivalent is our own skill and seeing if we can do better than an opponent or better than our last attempt. But a movie needs a story and characters and dialog that have to be familiar enough to be believable and new enough to hold our interest. And that is why it is much harder to translate a game to the big screen than it is a book or a play. And that is also why so far none of the attempts to do so have worked very well. It may be tough to get a video game avatar over a chasm or through a labyrinth, but it is even tougher to make her into a movie star, even when she is as appealing a character as adventurer Lara Croft.

The good news is that this reboot stars Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, a less remote, more real version of the character first played on screen by Angelina Jolie in two earlier “Tomb Raider” films, and by a bunch of pixels in a video game series. While the game version was idealized and the Jolie version was similarly polished, curvy, and near-all-powerful, swinging (literally) through her fabulous manor and ordering around her Alfred-like nerd-of-all-trades, this Lara is a little bit vulnerable and a little bit lost. We first see her losing a boxing match, forced to tap out before she loses consciousness in a choke hold. Because she will not sign papers declaring that her father is dead, though he has been missing for seven years, she cannot access his fortune or that fabulous manor.

Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) loves his daughter (though he calls her “Sprout,” a truly awful nickname). But devastated by the loss of his wife, he has spent most of his time away from Lara as he seeks some way to connect to the supernatural. He disappeared on an expedition to a remote island where the legend has it that an Egyptian queen with powers of life and death is entombed. Since the movie is called “Tomb Raider,” you know where this is going.

And you also know that who cares about the story, this is about the chases and stunts. There’s a good chase on a bicycle “fox hunt.” And there’s a great stunt in the middle of the film involving a rusted-out crashed plane stuck on a branch over a waterfall. Walt Goggins is a nicely creepy bad guy. But once they actually make it inside the tomb it gets too game-ish, and by the time it hints at another chapter, well, it’s game over.

Parents should know that this film include extended peril and violence, chases, guns, fights, explosions, many characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, some strong language

Family discussion: Why wouldn’t Lara sign the papers? How did growing up without a father influence her choices?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Tomb Raider” films with Angelina Jolie and the Brendan Fraser version of “The Mummy”

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