Smurfs: The Lost Village

Posted on April 6, 2017 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril/violence, no one injured
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 10, 2017

Copyright Sony 2017
Copyright Sony 2017
The Smurfs are back where they belong, in a fully-animated feature film that wisely gives up on the idea of trying to put them into the real live action world and even more wisely gives up on the brash and unfunny storylines that relied much too heavily on substituting “smurf” for various words. Better than that, “Smurfs: The Lost Village”creates a truly enchanted and enchanting world for the Smurfs, a candy-colored pastoral setting that is just right for the little blue creatures. And best of all, for the first time this is a Smurf story that engages with the ultimate existential dilemma of the Smurfs: why are all the male Smurfs given names that reflect their most salient attributes (Hefty, Clumsy, Brainy, Nosy, Painter, Table Eater, Therapist) while the lone female Smurf is only defined by her gender and called Smurfette? Does her lack of a more descriptive name mean that there is nothing special about her? And why aren’t there any other female Smurfs, anyway?

These questions will all be answered in a delightfully satisfying and beautifully designed film that will be enjoyed by long-time fans and newcomers. Those steeped in Smurfology know that Smurfette’s gender is not the most important difference that sets her apart from the other Smurfs in her village.

Smurfette (with the sweet, spunky voice of Demi Lovato) was not born a Smurf (if, indeed Smurfs are born). She was created out of clay by the Smurfs’ nemesis, the evil wizard Gargamel (delightfully voiced by Rainn Wilson), who wanted her to infiltrate the Smurfs so she could spy on them and create mistrust and jealousy. But she was turned into a real Smurf by the Smurf’s wise and benign leader, Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin). As this story begins, she is living happily in the Smurf community, though wistful at not having a (literally) defining characteristic. If her name does not tell her who she is, how will she and the boy Smurfs know?

As in most Smurf stories, the bad buy here is Gargamel, who as usual has an evil plan that involves capturing the Smurfs and extracting their magic to create a potion that will give him unlimited power. Smurfette discovers that there is another Smurf community, so she, Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Brainy (Danny Pudi), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) go on a journey to find it. The adventures along the way and the fun of getting acquainted with the Amazonian warriors of the lost village (including Julia Roberts as their leader) are whimsically imagined and a lot of fun, with bright, lively music and a sweet message of finding your own way and being a part of a community.

Parents should know that this film has some mild fantasy peril and violence, with no one badly injured. There is some mild language and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: If you were a Smurf, what would your name be? Which Smurf is your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: the Smurf cartoons and books and “Trolls”

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3D Animation Based on a television show Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy For the Whole Family Series/Sequel

Ghost in the Shell

Posted on March 30, 2017 at 11:11 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: sci-fi/action style peril and violence, guns, explosions, fire, terrorism, suicide, murder, characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Questionable cross-race casting
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Copyright DreamWorks 2017
Copyright DreamWorks 2017

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe if you are a long-time fan of the “Ghost in the Shell” mange by Masamune Shirow and anime and are yet still not offended at the casting of a white actress in a Japanese story you might enjoy seeing a big-budget version of the story with very high-end design and special effects. I am new to the franchise and I was bored. Like a lot of video game movies, it loses the story and characters in a barrage of visual effects and shoot-outs.

Scarlett Johansson plays Major, who used to be a person but is now robot with a human brain or a human brain with a robot body. People do a lot of explaining in this movie, but never about the stuff we would like to have explained. So one character tells us that Major is not a machine but a weapon in the fight against cyber-terrorism. But we never find out why Major’s clothes keep disappearing when she goes into battle. Or why a robot breathes and cries.

In an early scene, we see businessmen at an expensive dinner, being served by elegant but not un-sexy robot geishas. I hope you have seen enough movies to know that when one of them arrogant insists that “There is nothing I can’t do, nothing I can’t know, nothing I can’t be,” he is not going to be around much longer. Some gunmen break in and start shooting, and Major arrives to fight them.

Major was once a human woman. When she was injured in the terrorist attack that killed her parents, her body could not be saved but in a pioneering experiment by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), she is turned into a cyborg. At least that is the story she has been told. She has flashes of what could be memories but it seems to her as though there is thick fog over her memories “and I can’t see through it.” Dr. Ouelet is very proud of Major, almost maternal. And Major has a partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk). Where she is a robot with a human brain, he is a human with mechanical parts.

The man/robot/operating system/entity behind the attack is cerebral hacking and killing more people as Major is experiencing what she calls “glitches,” especially after she does a risky “deep dive” into the network of the hacked geisha robot. But are they glitches or “Total Recall”/”Bourne”-style flashes of memory?

When the comic first appeared, some of these issues were cutting edge but they have been so thoroughly hashed out in so many movies (and in real life) that most of it is as outdated as a VHS video of “WarGames.” The issue of consent is more timely, as Major has to affirmatively accept various risks and procedures (like all of those “I agree” boxes you have to check every time you update your software), but the movie is too busy showing us zippy Pokemon Go-style virtual ads all over the city to spend any thought on it, or anything else, for that matter.  It is a shame that a movie about the spark of human consciousness that remains inside a machine is itself a machine without any evidence of humanity at all.

Parents should know that this film has constant sci-fi/action style peril and violence, guns, explosions, fire, terrorism, a suicide, murder, with characters injured and killed, and some graphic and disturbing images, some nudity, prostitutes and sexual predator, smoking, and drinking. There has been some controversy over the casting of non-Asian actors. Scarlett Johansson responded “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.” The director of the anime version also supports Johansson in the role: “What issue could there possibly be with casting her? The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.”  On Slate, Aisha Harris explains why a revelation late in the film is especially troubling in the movie’s portrayal of race.

Family discussion: Is Major a person, a machine, or a weapon? What enhancement would you like to have?

If you like this, try: the “Matrix” and “Bourne” series, “Lucy,”  and the Ghost in the Shell comics and anime

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3D Action/Adventure Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel DVD/Blu-Ray Remake Science-Fiction

Saban’s Power Rangers

Posted on March 23, 2017 at 5:28 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi peril and violence, some disturbing images, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 26, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B0727PMH49

power rangersWhy why why why why make the popular series for children into a PG-13 movie? Why emphasize that decision in the very first scene with a crude joke about bovine body parts? Why drag the origin story on for an hour so we don’t get to the good stuff about the powers of the Power Rangers until the movie is half over?

These were among the questions I pondered between glances at my watch as I slogged through “Saban’s Power Rangers,” a big-budget theatrical version of the television series created by Haim Saban (originally “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”), based on the Japanese Super Sentai show about teen superheroes (and using some of its footage).

Our soon-to-be heroes meet in “Breakfast Club”-style detention. There is the handsome quarterback (Dacre Montgomery as Jason), the cheerleader kicked off the squad (Naomi Scott as Kimberly), the self-described crazy loner who cares tenderly for his sick mother (Ludi Lin as Zack), the nerdy guy on the autism spectrum (RJ Cyler as Billy), and the sullen new girl (Becky G. as Trini).

The blah-blah: an ancient civilization perished fighting Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a rogue former Power Ranger who wants to destroy everything. Tens of thousands of years later, our merry band of misfits all happen upon the same power-granting “coins” of different colors (but apparently all the same powers) and learn that their job is to continue the fight, as Rita returns. Their challenge, as she gains her powers from chomping on jewelry and pulling the fillings out of the teeth of homeless people (she feeds on gold), is to learn to use their powers and work as a team (with the only white male Power Ranger as the leader), figuring out how to morph (manifest their primary color-coordinated armor/uniforms) and learning about Rita and her army of rock creatures. They also have access to some very cool Morphin Power Rangers weapon vehicles, but we don’t get enough time to really enjoy them.

Rita’s challenge is to find a last missing infinity stone, I mean crystal, hiding (I am not making this up) in a Krispy Kreme store. I’m not sure if I was the marketing department of Krispy Kreme that I would chose this form of product placement, but, to be fair, they do say the name a lot and a character does stop mid-chaotic fight for the future of the universe to eat a donut. And the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles already have pizza on lockdown.

This uncomfortable mixture of teen angst (Sexting! Disappointing parents!) and cartoonish violence only comes alive when Banks is on screen, clearly having way too much fun swanning around as the embodiment of evil. Bryan Cranston is wasted as an Oz-like talking head and Bill Hader does not have enough to do as a cute little android sensei. The teens are bland and forgettable. The final action sequence departs from the series’ tradition of covering the actors’ faces with the costume (making it easy for them to switch out performers who left or asked for too much money). We see their faces, but it is still hard to remember which one is who.

Long-time fans will get a kick out of glimpsing some of the original stars, hearing a bit of the show’s theme song, and a couple of inside references. But that doesn’t make up for a Power Rangers film that is sadly lacking in any narrative or emotional energy.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi peril and violence with characters injured and killed, explosions, guns, a character impaled, some disturbing images, brief strong language, teen drinking, and crude sexual humor.

Family discussion: Why was it difficult for the Power Rangers to learn how to morph? Why were the Power Rangers all kids who had gotten into trouble?

If you like this, try: the television series and the “Transformers” movies

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Based on a television show DVD/Blu-Ray Stories about Teens Superhero

Table 19

Posted on March 2, 2017 at 5:59 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, no one hurt, medical issues
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 13, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B06XYSX6KQ
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2017
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2017

I know. They hate the term. But it is impossible to talk about Mark and Jay Duplass (as writers, anyway, aside from their work as actors, directors, and producers) without the dreaded term “mumblecore,” which was applied to their early microbudget work because of the improvisational, shaggy-dog, millennial-ness of their work. Traces of that remain in “Table 19,” cross-bred with a more conventional romantic comedy, and it turns out to be a welcome blend of sweet and sour. This is not the usual Jennifer/Jessica with a quippy best friend, a meet cute, and a makeover.

We’ve all seen that placecard and most of us have been seated by it: the table for leftover wedding guests who aren’t the family or close friends of either bride or groom but somehow had to be included. Eloise (Anna Kendrick) provides the fellow denizens of the dreaded Table 19 with the inside scoop. Back just a few months earlier, when she and the bride, her oldest friend, were planning everything together, Table 19 was for the people who did not fit in anywhere else, the people who had to be invited but who the hosts were hoping would not make it, still sending a gift from the registry.

The characters may be third-tier in the minds of their hosts, but they are played by top tier comic talent. Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson play a married couple who have fallen into a marital death spiral of bickering that makes them miserable and humiliated, but they cannot seem to find their way out of it. Stephen Merchant is a cousin of the groom who seems unfamiliar with social interactions of any kind. “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Tony Revolori is a teenager with raging hormones but no idea of how to talk to girls. June Squibb plays the bride’s first nanny.

And then there is Eloise, once a maid of honor and dating the bride’s brother/best man (Wyatt Russell), but, since they broke up two months earlier, stuck at Table 19, on the other side of the ballroom, near the restrooms.  We know she almost didn’t come; she even started to burn the invitation. But for some reason, she was determined to be there, and there she is, on the wedding table island of misfit toys. A mysterious and handsome man appears and he has an English accent and a way with an aphorism. Could he be her Prince Charming?

Very able performers make up for some story shortcomings, including a too-neat resolution that I’m guessing was recut after test screenings. Kendrick is as always a marvel of precision, heart, and comic timing, so every time things start to go off kilter, we know she will get us safely home.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and comic mayhem, brief comic nudity, drinking and tipsiness, marijuana, and sexual references including adultery and pregnancy.

Family discussion: Why did Eloise go to the wedding? How did sitting at Table 19 make it possible for her to acknowledge her feelings? What’s your funniest family gathering experience?

If you like this, try: “Rocket Science” with the same director and star

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Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Romance

Get Out

Posted on February 23, 2017 at 5:44 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and very graphic and scary peril and violence with very disturbing images and sounds including surgical situations, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 7, 2017
Copyright Universal 2017
Copyright Universal 2017

Two caveats before I begin the review: First, I am not very knowlegeable about horror films and therefore do not have the context I normally bring to evaluating a film. Second and more important, this movie has complex themes about race and privilege that I do not pretend to have authority to speak to. I strongly recommend that people who are interested in understanding this film read the perspectives of critics who are African-American or people of color, and I will post links to some of the ones I especially admire at the end of this review. With those limitations in mind, here are my thoughts on “Get Out,” in my opinion a superb film on many levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele, like his “Key and Peele” partner Keegan-Michael Key, is biracial, which gives them both a lifelong experience with being both part of and observer of black and white culture and a lifelong fascination with code-switching, as we saw in their film “Keanu,” written by Peele. Moving from comedy to horror, Peele continues to explore the themes, giving depth and emotional power to a genre film. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who carelessly purloins historic settings as a shortcut to the audience’s emotional investment so he can get right to the gore, Peele cannily plays the conventions of the genre and the discomfort and hostility about race off of each other.

It is one of the most terrifying prospects of ordinary life: meeting the family of the significant other. This familiarly excruciating prospect can be played for comedy (“Meet the Parents”) or drama (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”), but horror is perhaps its best fit, with room for some comedy and drama as well. The fact that Rose (“Girls” star Allison Williams) has not told her parents that her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is black, adds another layer of tension. She assures him it does not matter. “They would have voted for Obama for a third time if they could!”

Kaluuya gives a star-making performance with help from cinematographer Toby Oliver, who makes this that rarest of movies, one that knows how to light African-Americans, especially those with darker skin, so that we can really see what they bring to the role. Watch his face in the early scenes as Chris navigates the fatuous pleasantries of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, both excellent), and then the bro-ish thuggery of Rose’s brother, and then the condescending appraisals of the friends who all seem like they are on their way to the yacht club. We see him calibrate each of these interactions, trying to be a good sport, trying to go along, trying to make his girlfriend’s family feel comfortable with him, but starting to lose his patience. One of the film’s many shrewd understandings is the way that a lifetime of having to reassure white people that he is not going to hurt them or make them uncomfortable makes him slow to pick up on or slow to doubt himself about the creepiness of Rose’s family. An early scene, where Chris and Rose get questioned by a highway patrolman after hitting a deer is subtle but sharply drawn. And before you can say “foreshadowing,” Chris is getting a tour of the house and Rose’s dad is explaining that the basement had to be sealed off because of black mold. Hmm. And did I mention the prologue when a black guy walking down a peaceful suburban street is followed and then captured? And that the only person of color beside Chris at the party (the always-great LaKeith Stanfield) is strangely subdued and doesn’t know about fist bumps?

It would be a disservice to say any more about the plot. I won’t spoil the twists. I’ll just say that Peele knows what scares us and how to scare us and make us enjoy it, and gives us a lot to think about about some comedy as well. And that it may be that the scariest thing about the movie is the reminder that it has taken far too long to shine the correct light — literally and figuratively — on stories that should be told because they are just that good.

I recommend these reviews: Travis Hopson, Aisha Harris, Jeffrey Lyles, Kevin Sampson, Stephen Thrasher, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Odie Henderson and Stephen Boone. Also, this piece on conversations with interracial couples who have seen the film.

Parents should know that this is a horror film with theme of racism and exploitation, extended peril and violence including gun, choking, and bloody, graphic, and explicit medical images and sounds, characters injured and killed, suicide, references to sad loss of a parent, some strong language including racist epithets, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and smoking.

Family discussion: When does the story turn from insensitive to offensive to sinister? What makes Chris decide that he has to leave?

If you like this, try: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Wicker Man” (original version) and “The Stepford Wives”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Horror Race and Diversity Thriller
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