Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted on July 3, 2018 at 4:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 15, 2018
Copyright 2018 Marvel

I like Ant-Man. He’s literally down to earth — after the intergalactic super-villain Thanos plotting the wiping out of half the universe, it’s nice to see our hero up against an ordinary, non-super thug of a bad guy. And it’s also nice to see, 20 movies in, a female superhero in the title of the film. I like the slightly retro, slightly bookish look of the Ant-Man films (outstanding work from production designer Shepherd Frankel). And I like the fun they have with scale. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can do more than shrink himself to the size of an ant and call on his ant friends to help him out. He can make himself and objects around him get bigger or smaller almost instantly. And the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) can do all of that AND fly and use her wrist blasters.

Scott has three more days to go under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet, with frequent check-ins by the local authorities, led by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who can’t seem to decide whether he wants to lock Scott up or become his BFF. He’s going a little stir-crazy, though he enjoys the elaborate games he creates for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The terms of his parole forbid him from having contact with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or his daughter Hope (Lilly), but that has not been a problem. They are not speaking to him after they think he betrayed them by making their technology public in “Captain America: Civil War.”

But something else that happened in “Civil War” is the reason they have to find him again. Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother, the brilliant scientist Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer), became too small and they thought she was lost forever in the “quantum entanglement.” Scott was able to return from the quantum entanglement, though, and they want to find out how and send him back there to see if Janet can be rescued. This is a job for two superheroes, and so it’s time for Hope to suit up.

An all-around crime boss named Sonny Burch (Walt Goggins) wants to stop them from getting the material they need to make that work. A character whose backstory I won’t spoil but who can vibrate through matter also wants it. And the cops are trying to capture the Pyms as well. So, lots of chases, lots of hand-offs and near misses. Director Peyton Reed and his writers (including Rudd) have a lot of fun with scale, sizing the vehicles up and down in an instant and Scott himself getting as big as the Statue of Liberty (which is exhausting for him) and as tiny as an atom. His suit does not always work correctly, though, and his judgment does not always work correctly, either.

The distinctive humor of the first film continues in this one, with Michael Pena returning as Scott’s loquacious fellow ex-con and business partner. His circuitous story-telling was funny in the first film, and it gets funnier here when he is questioned under the effects of what could be a truth serum (whether it is or not is a point of contention). Random topics that also come up for discussion include close-up magic, the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga, loading the dishwasher, and playing the drums. There are some great action sequences, especially one in a kitchen and the chase scenes, and crisp pacing to balance the more laid-back comedy. Its biggest failing is the dumb nicknames for the daughters of the characters. Really, Peanut? Jellybean? Those girls deserve something as witty and distinctive as the rest of the film.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for a brief update on the “Infinity War” cliffhanger, and then all the way to the end for an even briefer and very silly little second extra that has an important clue.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some scary images, mild language, and some parent-child issues.

Family discussion: What changes do you think the quantum experience has on people who travel there? How is Ant-Man different from the other Avengers?

If you like this, try: the first “Ant-Man” and the Avengers movies

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Posted on June 21, 2018 at 3:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense sci-fi/action peril and violence with many characters injured, eaten, gored, and killed, volcano,
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 22, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 17, 2018
Copyright 2018 Universal Pictures

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a mildly entertaining but utterly unnecessary fifth in the series inspired by doctor-turned blockbuster author Michael Crichton’s books.

It does recognize that if you’re going to keep making movies about reconstituted dinosaurs, it’s time to get them off that island. Yes, I remember they made it to San Diego in #2, but by now we feel we know every leaf and tree on the island that was once the theme park created by twinkly-eyed, mega-rich John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) with the help of scientist of questionable ethics Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), where so, so many things have gone wrong, as Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) way back in the OG “Jurassic Park” back in 1993. He predicted that the results would be unpredictable, and not in our favor: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Dr. Malcolm is back again as this film begins, and he’s still not on board with dinosaurs existing at the same time as humans. He’s testifying at a Congressional hearing because the island has a retconned volcano eruption and if the world does not save them, all of the dinos will be wiped out. “Let it happen,” says Dr. Malcolm. That’s nature, and it will prevent them from wiping us out. But of course there are those who consider the dinos, however created, an endangered species now, and are trying to raise money to save them. This includes former all-business, now all-love-for dinos Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, thankfully out of the stilettos and able to run in flats), paleovetrenarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), and, of course, this movie’s house computer whiz and full-time scardy-cat, hacker Franklin Webb (Justice Smith of “Paper Towns”).

Just when it seems all is lost, Claire gets the dream offer from retconned former Hammond partner and ailing ultra-rich guy Benjamin Lockwood, who lives with his young granddaughter Maisie (excellent screamer Isabella Sermon). If she can persuade former love interest Owen (Chris Pratt) to help her extract samples of different species, Noah-style, he will put them in an isolated compound where they will never bother anyone or be bothered by anyone ever again.

Yeah, you know what Dr. Malcolm would say about that. He’d also say, “Never trust a rich guy, or, maybe, trust a rich guy but never trust his henchmen who want very, very, very much to be rich guys, especially after Dr. Wu shows up again, plus Buffalo Bill from ‘Silence of the Lambs.'” About that, though. Rafe Spall and Toby Jones use their best American accents for the evil want-to-be-rich roles but they are pretty bad at business. They accepted how much per dino?

So, basically, this is a movie of dinosaurs on the island running away from a volcano while humans run away from the dinosaurs (Remember — you don’t have to be faster than the dinosaurs. You just have to be faster than some other humans.), followed by humans running away from dinosaurs and evil humans at Lockwoods cool, creepy, Victorian mansion, followed by, oh yes, a big fat cliffhanger. Get ready for #6, “Jurassic World: Electric Blue-galoo.”

Here’s what’s good. Director J.A. Bayona knows how to tell a story with a camera, and the film is well-paced and stylishly told. The original had Spielbergian magic in the story-telling as well as the special effects, though. This one is several orders of magnitude down the evolutionary scale, so to speak, on both counts.

Parents should know that this film has constant sci-fi action and peril, scary animal attacks, volcano, characters injured and killed, including being gored and being eaten, murder, sad death, and guns.

Family discussion: Who was right about rescuing the dinosaurs? Do you agree that we keep creating technology we are not capable of controlling?

If you like this, try: the other Jurassic Park/World movies and the book by Mich

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How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Posted on May 31, 2018 at 4:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sci-fi peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 1, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 13, 2018
Copyright 2018 A24

Three suburban British schoolboys in the 1990’s are big fans of punk because it seems thrilling to challenge authority and pretty much everything.  But they are not very knowledgeable about anything outside of their own experience, and so when they accidentally wander into a strange party that happens to be a bunch of aliens, they just assume that they must be American girls. In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Americans, girls, and aliens — they’re all equally unknown, and so, for these boys anyway, easy to confuse.

Neil Gaiman’s sly short story has been lovingly adapted by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Rabbit Hole”), with a breakout performance by Tony-winner Alex Sharp as Enn (short for Henry), a sweet-natured kid who, like his two best friends, loves punk and really, really, really wants to learn how to talk to girls.  Somehow, though, at parties he’s the one who ends up in the kitchen talking to someone’s mum. One night, after a punk concert, they go in search of a party they heard about but end up knocking on the wrong door.  Inside, each room has a different gathering or ritual or happening going on, all exceptionally attractive people (though one has made a mistake in manifesting and has a weird forked finger).

We know what it will take Enn the whole movie to figure out.  These are not American girls. They are aliens, on some sort of galactic tour.  And one of them, named Zan (Elle Fanning, looking far too perfect to be a human) is an alien version of punk, open-minded, curious, and inclined to break the rules. She and Enn go out exploring the world together, and they explore each other a bit, too.

The fun of all fish out of water films is seeing our world, in this case our former world, through fresh eyes. We may laugh as Zan discovers what happens when a human body processes food or speaks whatever comes into her head without understanding social norms like privacy or embarrassment. But we also appreciate her wonder at the gritty, harsh British suburb and the very things that punk is rebelling against. Her encounter with a punk queen (Nicole Kidman with gusto and evident enjoyment) is surprisingly endearing. And when Zan’s alien leaders want to interfere, well, let’s just say that it can be a real advantage to have punks on your side. A magical musical number brings everything together in quite literal terms.

Sharp is the real deal. I was struck by his performance on Broadway and really happy to see him in this film. He is able to convey innocence that comes from being true-hearted, not from a slapstick kind of awkwardness. Fanning continues to be one of the most appealing young performers in films today, always thoughtful and heartfelt. Their Romeo and Juliet romance is sweet and touching, with the adventures of Enn’s friends providing some counterpoint. Punk in this film is not angry so much as revolutionary, fueled by ideas and optimism. That may seem like an alien idea today, but Mitchell makes it seem right on time.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, teen partying, drinking, drugs, nudity, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: What does punk mean to you? What is punk today? Why didn’t Zan want to follow the rules?

If you like this, try: “Stardust” and “Coraline,” also based on books by Neil Gaiman

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted on May 22, 2018 at 2:32 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi style peril, action, and violence, chases, shootouts, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 24, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

The moment I became a “Star Wars” fan forever was in the cantina scene in what I will always refer to as the first “Star Wars” movie, now of course known as Episode IV, “A New Hope.” It was when Ben Kenobi tells Han (Harrison Ford, of course) he hopes to avoid any Imperial entanglements, and Han leans back and says, “Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it?” with so much rakish charm that we have to instantly forgive him for bragging about making the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs. (We will always be too polite to mention that parsecs measure distance not time. Who knows, maybe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, they told time in parsecs.)

So, would I like to see that Kessel run? And how Han met Chewy the wookiee? And how me met the dashing buccaneer, Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams in Episodes V and VI and here by master-of-all-arts Donald Glover? And the bet that won Han the brand-spanking-new Millennium Falcon? Written by “Empire Strikes Back” and “Force Awakens” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, with his son Jonathan (“Dawson’s Creek”)? With the divine Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) voicing a slightly loopy and more than slightly lippy droid? You bet I do!

Does it deliver? You bet your Han Solo hanging dice it does! Does Han shoot first? This time he does!

This prequel has the wonderfully charismatic Alden Ehrenreich (the “Would that t’were so simple” guy from “Hail, Ceasar!”) as Han, who lives with other orphans in a work camp led by Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Think Fagin, without the warmth. He has a plan to escape with the girl he loves, Qi’ra (“Game of Thrones” dragon-rider Emilia Clarke). Han is a bit of a rascal, but also an optimist back in these teenage years. “Wherever we go it can’t be worse than where we’ve been,” he says. But we know it can.

And as we know from films like “Casablanca” and “The Fifth Element,” whether it’s the letters of transit or the multipass, you have to have the right paperwork to get away. Han escapes (and in the film’s cheesiest moment, is assigned a last name based on his solitary status) but Qi’ra is captured. Han decided to enlist with the Imperial forces to get trained as a pilot so he can return to save her.

Three years later, Han has been thrown out of the academy and is now a grunt in the Imperial military. He meets a bandit named Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and his ragtag crew (is there any other kind?) of daredevils, and agrees to join forces with them on a heist so he can get a ship go back and rescue Qi’ra. This leads to a marvelously staged sci-fi version of a western train robbery.

It turns out that Beckett is not stealing on his own behalf, but working for someone else, someone who is not forgiving when things do not go well, harking back to the original cantina scene again, where we learn that Han had to jettison the cargo he was delivering to Jabba the Hutt. The big crime boss is Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany, with scars across his face as though a space tiger clawed his cheeks, scars that redden when he gets angry. Beckett and Han have to try again.

Along the way Han meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando. I am not going to spoil how; I’ll just say that both encounters are fitting and highly entertaining. Han does meet up with Qi’ra again, but is not ready to see how she has been affected by what she has had to do to survive. She joins the team and they take on another big heist. There’s a high-stakes card game, a trial by combat, and good advice that gets ignored. And the better you know the series, the more references and callbacks you will be delighted to discover. There are new insights about well-known characters and intriguing new ones, especially Waller-Bridge as a droid with a few crossed wires. In addition to the touches that center this in the “Star Wars” universe, there are references to classic movie genres, heist films and westerns and maybe “The Wages of Fear.” It may not be necessary, but it is most welcome, a thrilling and warm-hearted adventure in its own right that fits as satisfyingly into the “Star Wars” universe as that last piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

Parents should know that like all “Star Wars” movies, this one has non-stop peril and action with some disturbing images and many characters injured and killed. There is some mild language and some alcohol.

Family discussion: What do you think happened when Han was at the Academy? What is Han’s greatest skill?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films

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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
Date Released to DVD: July 23, 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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