Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted on July 6, 2017 at 5:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some teen language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action/fantasy peril and violence, chases, explosions, guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 16, 2017

This latest version of Spider-Man is a homecoming indeed, taking us back to the teenage Peter Parker, a bright kid going to high school in Queens, trying to figure out how to talk to the prettiest girl on the Academic Decathlon as he is also trying to figure out what it means to have the great responsibility that comes with great power. Holland, less soulful and more excitable than his recent predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. In this version (thankfully omitting the radioactive spider bite origin story), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is just 15 years old, a high school sophomore, and that means that everything that is happening to him is equally momentous, whether it’s a school field trip to Washington DC for the Decathlon or another kind of field trip that involves an all-out battle with members of the Avengers fighting each other.

We got a glimpse of Holland as Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei as a very young and appealing Aunt May at the end of the last Avengers movie, “Captain America: Civil War,” when Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) brings him to the big fight. This movie reminds us that is where we left off by letting us revisit that episode through Peter’s eyes. Of course if Tony Stark comes to get you and you end up stealing Captain America’s shield in a huge intramural Avengers battle, and you’re just 15 years old, you’re going to be super-excited and you’re going to record it all on your smartphone.

And once the battle is over, he’s going to be back to his regular life of school during the day and very polite crime-fighting at night, explaining his absences to Aunt May and his friends by saying he has a special internship with Stark Industries. Peter is eager to get back into the big leagues: “I feel like I could be doing more.” But Stark and his aide, Happy (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) tell him to stay home and work on his skills. “Just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Stark says, and Happy warns, “I’m responsible for seeing that you’re responsible.” But he does give Peter a very cool Spark-designed super-suit with many upgrades, and seeing Spidey discover and master them is a big part of the fun.

Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, bringing some of his comic-book vibe from “Batman” and “Birdman.” His character is Adrian Toomes, who is initially given the salvage contract to dispose of the mess left after a super-battle. When his group is replaced, putting the survival of his company in peril, he liberates some of the alien weapons left behind and becomes an arms dealer, ruthless in business but devoted to his family.

The film goes back and forth between superhero action and a John Hughes style teen movie, with with affectionate references to “Ferris Bueller,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “The Breakfast Club.” There is a nerdy best friend (Jacob Batalon as Ned), a way-out-of-his-league girl (Laura Harrier as Liz), a girl with some potential (Zendaya, wryly hilarious), a school field trip for the Academic Decathlon (with a rescue at the Washington Monument), a Spanish quiz, and a prom, all interrupted by some wild stunts, including a split-down-the-middle Staten Island ferry and a world-depends-on-it hijacking of some of the Avengers’ most important objects.

It’s funny (keep an eye out for Captain America’s school videos), it is exciting (the action scenes are very well paced), and it is smart, not overlooking the chance to compare Toomes’ weapon sales to unsavory characters to Stark’s. Holland is an immensely appealing Peter, young but already very much a hero. His super-challenges keep interfering with his teenage rites of passage, but my spidey-sense tells me he’s just right for the job.

NOTE: Stay ALL the way to the end for a second and very funny credits scene featuring one of the Avengers.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic-book/fantasy action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, explosions, murder, and some teen language and sexual humor.

Family discussion: How does this differ from other Spider-Man movies? Why does Peter say no to Tony?

If you like this, try: more Marvel movies and some John Hughes movies, too

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Despicable Me 3

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 5:33 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 4, 2017

Copyright 2017 Universal Pictures
It does not achieve the delirious delight of the first in the series, but it is better than the second. “Despicable Me 3” is meandering and uneven.

The problem with making the title character into a happily married good guy who loooves his three girls is that he is not despicable any more. He is therefore much less interesting than the actually despicable villain of the movie, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker, co-creator of “South Park”), an 80’s child star embittered because he has been forgotten. Whenever Bratt is not on screen, the film deflates. It is a cute, fun, and sweet-natured family treat, but overstuffed at just 90 minutes with too many distracting detours.

Formerly despicable Gru (Steve Carell) is now working with Lucy (Kristen Wiig) at the AVL (Anti-Villain League), and Lucy is also trying to learn how to be a mother to the three girls, serious middle-schooler Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), mischievous Edith (Dana Gaier), and sweet, unicorn-loving Agnes (Nev Scharrel).

Gru and Lucy stop Bratt from stealing the world’s largest diamond, but he gets away, and the new, very ambitious, head of the AVL (Jenny Slate) fires Gru. Lucy quits in protest. As they begin to think about finding new jobs and Agnes sells off her beloved fluffy stuffed unicorn to help out, Gru finds out for the first time that he has an identical twin brother. “Parent Trap” style, when their parents split up, they split the babies up, too. An emissary from Gru’s brother, Dru (also Carell) invites them for a visit to Freedonia, presumably the country responsible for their accents and certainly the country where the Marx Brothers created memorable mayhem in “Duck Soup.”

Dru is identical to Gru except for luxuriant blond hair. And it turns out he wants to be despicable, like their late dear old dad. The brothers go for a wild joyride in Dad’s crookmobile. Bratt has now successfully stolen the world’s biggest diamond, and so Gru tells Dru they will steal it from him. Dru thinks they will keep it, but Gru plans to return it so he and Lucy can get their jobs back.

Meanwhile, the minions are performing Gilbert & Sullivan on a TV reality show and being thrown in prison. Lucy is still not sure how to connect to the girls. Agnes thinks she can find a unicorn. And Bratt is getting ready for the ultimate revenge on the Hollywood that rejected him.

The film flags whenever Bratt is off-screen. He is an inspired creation, with lots of 80’s references for the parents and just the right touch of whiny entitlement to seem quite timely. He just about makes up for the slow patches. The snatches of the terrific Pharrell Williams score from the first film serve as a reminder that this, too, is mostly just an inferior copy, we hope, the last.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon-style peril and violence, mostly comic, crotch hit, some potty humor, and brief minion nudity.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Lucy know when to say no? What made Margo trust her? Why did Gru’s parents tell their sons they were disappointments?

If you like this, try: the other “Despicable Me” movies and “Megamind”

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Baby Driver

Posted on June 27, 2017 at 9:43 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended scenes of peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, chases, explosions, many disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 28, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures

Fasten your seatbelts. This one is pedal to the metal all the way home.  “Baby Driver,” written and directed by Edgar Wright, hits you like a jolt of nitrous oxide shot with adrenaline concentrate, Red Bull, electrical current, and rock music.  The first time you see it, it will leave your eyes spinning like pinwheels.  The second time you will begin to appreciate that it is more than a joyride.

Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”) plays Baby, who works for a crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Orphaned at age seven when his parents were killed in a car crash that left him with tinnitus, a persistent ringing in his ears, Baby is constantly listening to music via earbuds plugged into an endless collection of mp3 players.  The brilliantly curated playlist we hear is only what he is listening to, and it ranges from the The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to T Rex, the Beach Boys, Dave Brubeck, David McCallum (that’s either Ilya Kuryakin of “The Man from UNCLE” or Ducky from “NCIS” depending on how old you are), and Beck, to the Simon and Garfunkel song that gives the film its title.

Baby began stealing cars when he was still a child and became beholden to Doc.  Now, he drives the getaway car for the teams Doc brings together for robbery and mayhem.  Doc calls him “Mozart in a Go-Kart.” And Baby is counting down the jobs and the dollars until he and Doc are square and he can go.  But he is just too good for Doc to give up, and once the debt is paid, Doc finds other ways to apply pressure.

Baby seldom speaks to anyone, except for one person who cannot hear, his foster father, Joe (CJ Jones), who is deaf and in a wheelchair.  Their exchanges in sign language are warm and familiar in sharp contrast to his subdued presence with Doc and the criminals.

And then Baby meets Debora (Lily James of “Cinderella”), a waitress at the diner.  And then Doc tells him that their relationship is not over.

Each action sequence is meticulously matched to the songs Baby plays — at one point, when there is a setback he literally stops to rewind because he times the chases to the music.  But each action sequence is also a part of a narrative arc.  With the first, Baby is literally outside the crime, waiting in the car (and bopping along to “Bellbottoms”) as the gang robs a bank.  They come running out and he drives the getaway car so fast that they, well, get away.  The next one gets more intense as he cannot pretend he is not a part of something lethal. Each time, he gets more involved.  The sunglasses he wears all the time get broken and he cannot pretend not to see.  He can drive others to escape the consequences of their actions, but can he do that for himself?

The sizzling all-star cast includes Jon Hamm and Eiza González as a seedy but fearless couple with matching “hers” and “his” tattoos on their necks, Jamie Foxx as the trigger-happy and appropriately named Bats, along with Flea and Jon Bernthal as other members of Doc’s crew.

Wright has the flair of Quentin Tarantino in balancing comedy, romance, action filmed to be both balletic and terrible, and increasingly visceral threats.  But he has more sincerity, more heart. “Baby Driver” is cool as in appearing effortlessly accomplished, but not as in remote or removed.  His moral and unabashedly romantic center is in the driver’s seat.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with many chases and shoot-outs.  Characters are injured and killed and there are disturbing and graphic images. It also includes very strong language and drug references.

Family discussion: Why was Baby called Baby?  Why did Doc change his mind? Is the ending real or imaginary?

If you like this, try: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “The Transporter”

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The Big Sick

Posted on June 22, 2017 at 5:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references
Profanity: Strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very serious illness
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 2017
Copyright Amazon 2017

The more specific the story, the more universal. This is a very specific story. Indeed, you are unlikely ever again to see a romantic comedy with one of the pair spending half of the film in a coma. And that is not the couple’s biggest obstacle. Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), plays a character named Kumail Nanjiani in a story based on his relationship to Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan and called Emily Gardiner in the film), who is now his wife and the co-screenwriter of the smart, touching, heartfelt and very funny film. It is beautifully directed by Michael Showalter, as always unsurpassed in meticulous casting of even the smallest roles.

Real-life Nanjiani and his movie alter ego are Pakistani immigrants from traditional families. Every time he visits his parents for dinner, an unmarried Pakistani woman “happens to drop in.” They have made it very clear that they expect him to marry a woman who is Pakistani and Muslim. Gordon is neither; she is white and from North Carolina. Just after they break up because he could not say that they could have a future together, she suddenly becomes critically ill and is placed in a medically induced coma.  He gets the call when she is hospitalized and has to be the one to call her parents. He meets them for the first time in the hospital waiting room, where they are understandably frosty (he broke their daughter’s heart) and preoccupied (she’s in a coma).

They would rather that he not be there. And his parents find out that he has not been honest with them and they tell him they cannot accept his feelings for Emily. So, in the second half of the movie there is another kind of love story, about the love between parents and their children and the partners their children choose.

It is also a story about a man learning to be honest with himself about who he is and what he wants. What lifts this out of the recent glut of arrested development movies is its compassion for all parties (the film nicely acknowledges that Nanjiani’s brother has a very successful and satisfying marriage arranged the traditional way and presents as one of the candidates a woman so seemingly perfect for him that we almost root for her) and Nanjiani’s thoughtful, self-deprecating but confident performance. The best stand-up comics mine their own lives for material, with observations that make us see our own lives, and especially our follies and irrationalities, in sharper relief — that’s relief in both senses of the word.

Best of all, the movie itself is proof that they lived happily ever after.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, family conflict, and very serious illness.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Kumail tell Emily about his family’s concerns? How should you decide what traditions to keep and which ones to leave behind?

If you like this, try: “Ruby Sparks” (also with Kazan, who wrote the screenplay) and “50-50” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, also based on a true story

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Transformers: The Last Knight

Posted on June 20, 2017 at 5:37 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
Profanity: Strong language, many s-words and crude insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy violence, fire, guns, explosions, chases, characters injured and killed, reference to suicide
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

It is time to stop the madness. I only wish this was called “Knight: The Last Transformers Movie.” I am as happy as anyone to see robots transforming into cars and cars transforming into robots and I freely admit to tearing up once when it appeared that Bumblebee might have been mortally wounded. I’m very fond of Sir Anthony Hopkins, and I’m also very fond of Mark Wahlberg. But this big, loud, dumb, dull, nonsensical dud of a movie is two and a half excruciating hours long.

Wahlberg returns as inventor-turned-renegade Autobots protector Cade Yeager. The government has set up a special branch of the military to get rid of all of the transformers, making no distinction between the honorable Autobots led by Optimus Prime and the evil Decepticons led by Megatron. We see in a prologue set in the time of King Arthur that the Transformers go back more than 1000 years, when Merlin, who turns out to have had no magical skills at all, was given the “weapon of ultimate power,” a staff that enabled Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to win some battle with the help of a pretty impressive three-headed dragon. The staff and an amulet that is somehow connected to it will be the McGuffins that everyone will be looking for despite the fact that we never really find out what they can do.

Sure, the stunts are fun, and I especially enjoyed seeing Wahlberg leap from drone to drone like he was a stone skipping on a pond. But without a clear idea of the stakes there is no heft to them; it’s just pixels.

And the dialog — I can’t say which is worse, the painful attempts at banter (there’s an intended-to-be cute but isn’t at all riff on the homonyms “chaste” and “chased”), the exposition-heavy portentousness (“Where in Hell is your so-called magician?” “He will be here, Lancelot.” “Why do we tell ourselves these stories? We want to believe we can be heroes in our own lives.” “Do you seek redemption?” “Only a direct descendant of Merlin can wield this instrument of immense power!”), or the faux meaningful (“You are more important than you can possibly imagine”). If someone has to be spouting off idiotic explanations, though, at least most of it is in the beautifully husky Welsh voice of Sir Anthony (though his character’s ripping a page out of an antique library book is the most disturbingly violent act in the film).

Not much makes sense in “Transformers: The Last Night.” I’m not talking about why a robot would smoke a robot cigar-type sense. We expect that going in. But why would a robot want to eat a car?
And I’m talking about the basic elements that are necessary to connect to what is going on. How do you kill a Decepticon? Sometimes robots blow apart and sometimes they just come back together like in “Terminator 2.” How do we know how we are supposed to feel if we don’t know what the impact/import of a hit is? That all-powerful weapon? We never understand what it can do and it doesn’t seem very powerful after all. What is the point of Tony Hale spouting off about physics? I will note that one completely deranged moment was actually quite fun, when a C-3PO rip-off (acknowledged as such!) turns out to be the source of the dramatic organ music in one scene: “I was making the moment more epic.” A bit more deliriously loopy stuff like that would have been a step in the right direction.

What is the point of all the jokes about how a professor at Oxford should be looking for a husband? (Or a wife?) What is the deal with way too many daddy issues? Everyone in this movie seems to be a daughter looking for a daddy or a daddy looking for a daughter. As for this daughter, I’m just looking for a good summer stunts and explosions movie. Still looking.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence with chases, explosions, swords, guns, and monsters. Human and robot characters are injured and killed. Characters use strong and crude language and there is some dumb sexual humor.

Family discussion: Does it matter that Cade is “chosen?” Which Transformer is your favorite and why?

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

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