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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Action/Adventure Based on a video game movie review Movies Movies

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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Isle of Dogs

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:33 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Dog and human peril and violence, murder, sad death of parents, child injured badly, medical procedures, starvation and disease, skeletons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Issue of white American as the only one who takes on the villain
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
Say the title out loud. “Isle of Dogs” = “I love dogs,” get it? Even a three-word title of a Wes Anderson movie is a bit of a puzzle box. Anderson is the Joseph Cornell of filmmakers, with every item on screen and even those tucked away and not seen by the audience, every note on the soundtrack, meticulously assembled. It makes sense that this film is set in a fictional version of Japan because his movies are cinematic Bento boxes. Anderson’s most ardent fans love the understated drama and endless unpacking of detail and think there is a deeper meaning in the weirdness. I am less persuaded that there is always a deeper meaning, but I enjoy the singular peculiarity of his storytelling.

Like my favorite Anderson movie, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Isle of Dogs” is a story of talking animals told via stop-motion animation. This is a vastly more ambitious undertaking, based on an original story by Anderson with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, who appeared in Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” and also served as a casting director for this film and provided the voice for the movie’s bad guy.

Anderson’s intricate vision makes for exceptional world-building, and in this film he imagines a Japan 20 years from now, when political and environmental decay has progressed significantly but is seen as normal by the population. Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) is the mayor of the (fictional) coastal metropolis called Megasaki City. He persuades the population that dogs are a pestilential force, bringing disease (“snout fever” and “dog flu”) to the city, and decrees that all dogs, even the beloved guard dog of his adopted son Atari (Koyu Rankin), must be deported to a nearby “island” made up of trash. The starving, diseased, homesick dogs have a bleak existence on the island. And then Atari arrives, in an airplane, in search of his beloved Spots. And a teenage American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) starts to investigate, with one of those old-school evidence walls covered with clues linked together by red yarn. Anderson’s worst and most tone-deaf choice here is to make the one white, American human character the only one with any integrity and ability to resolve the crimes against the dogs and community.

As in all Anderson films, the human characters deliver their lines in deadpan even while experiencing cataclysmic loss, urgent action, or ardent emotion. What some audiences experience as whimsical, charming, and witty, others see as cloying, twee, or claustrophobic. But he is a marvel at world-building and here, as in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” where the entire film is essentially a set of dollhouses over which he has complete control, he is at his best. The settings in this film are an astonishing achievement of imagination and skill, from the tears welling up in the eyes of a dog to the intricacy of the machinery. If he ever devotes as much attention to the humanity of his characters as he does to the brilliance of his props, he will no longer be admired primarily for his singular aesthetic vision but for his characters and stories.

Parents should know that this film includes diseased and starving animals, children and adults in peril, murder, death of parents, child injured badly, dog fights with animals injured and killed, skeletons, some disturbing images including surgery, brief strong language, and references to dogs mating.

Family discussion: Why were the dogs banned? Why was it important for them to vote on big decisions?

If you like this, try: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”

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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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Love, Simon

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family situations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
If you are scrolling through Netflix you may run across movies like 2000’s The Truth About Jane, where family or friends discover that someone is gay, get upset, try to deny it or force the gay person into therapy, and then learn in time for a big happy ending at a Pride parade that love is what matters, no matter who the person they love loves. A lot has happened in 18 years, and thankfully we are pretty much past the point where a story about a family freak-out over the discovery that someone is gay is worth making a movie about. Yet there are two elements that are notable about “Love, Simon.” It is the first major studio romantic comedy about a gay teenager. And, much more notable, the real issue is not about his being gay; it is just about his being a teenager.

“Love, Simon” is based on the award-winning book by psychologist Becky Albertalli. It is indeed a comedy. There are many very funny lines, and gems of comic performances by two of the adults in the film. The always-great Tony Hale (“Veep”) plays a high-spirited vice-principal who likes to confiscate cell phones and act like a princi-PAL, and Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”) is absolutely hilarious as a put-upon drama teacher forced to direct a production of “Cabaret” that is required to include every student who wants to be in the cast. Making the adults in the story the comic relief is a very nice touch.

And it is definitely a romance. I can’t remember when I’ve heard an audience respond with cheers and applause as joyous as they did when the big kiss moment finally arrived. But what makes this film really special is that is about feelings everyone has — the feeling of being alone, outside some sort of magic circle everyone else seems to know how to get inside, the worry about letting people down, the soul-shrinking experience of actually letting them down even more than you feared, the terror of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, the joy of being seen and understood.

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer”) plays Simon, a high school senior who has everything — loving, generous parents (who also happen to be gorgeous — Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), a cute kid sister, and great friends with whom he shares “way too many iced coffees, bad 90’s movies, and gorge on carbs at the Waffle House.” His life is just about perfect except that he has not been able to find a way to tell anyone that he is gay.

The school has a gossipy website where a student who calls himself Blue says that he is gay but cannot come out. So Simon writes him as “Jacques” and the two of them instantly fall into a close, supportive friendship with perhaps a little bit of flirting. What makes this really great in the film is that it allows/requires Simon (whose full name, as he points out, means “he who hears” and “he who sees”) to look at every male student in the school differently, as he wonders which one is Blue and even pictures different students in the situations Blue describes. That experience, as much as the correspondence itself, widens his world and makes him more empathetic, similar to the different perspectives in last year’s “Wonder.”

An obnoxious student discovers the correspondence and threatens to publish it unless Simon helps him get close to Abby, a transfer student who has become a part of Simon’s group of friends.

A brief fantasy sequence about what being gay might be like in college is a lot of fun, and a scene where Simon imagines that heterosexual teens should have to come out to their parents is sharply funny. But what makes this movie special is its tender heart. It is wise about friendships, about those first tentative steps toward intimacy, about being honest, not just about what you are but who you are, and about the unforgettable tenderness of that first kiss.

Parents should know that the theme of this film is a gay high schooler struggling to come out and it includes kisses, a brief crude sexual reference, teen drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why could Simon tell Blue and Abby before Leah and his family? Would you like to have a “Secrets” website for your school?

If you like this, try: “G.B.F.,” “Never Been Kissed,” and “Easy A”

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