Eternals

Posted on October 31, 2021 at 9:39 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, brief sexuality, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended superhero peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, scary monsters, weapons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Exceptionally diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 14, 2022

Copyright Marvel Studios 2021
I’m sorry to tell you The Eternals is a mess. I’m sorry because I like Marvel movies and I like the writer/director Chloé Zhao and I wanted to love it.

I did almost love parts of it, but other parts are truly disappointing which is why it is a mess. At least that is better than being bad. I’m not sure anyone could have made it work. It is like calling up the Low-A baseball team to play in a World Series game, leaving us all sitting there in an enormous Major League Baseball stadium watching a team that is just not up to that kind of attention. It might have been nice to see these second-tier Marvel characters in a lower-key, lower-budget setting instead of the massive, time and place-hopping heavily CGI’d epic that keeps threatening to overshadow the characters as we try to remember which one has which powers and how they all relate to each other.

It does not help that we have spent 26 films over 14 years to get to know the most powerful superheroes on the planet (in the MCU’s version) and we are now told that there’s another bunch of superheroes we have not seen before who are even more powerful. The reason we have not seen them before is they’re in theory not allowed to interfere with human matters. They have been on earth since its earlier beginning with just one job, to fight some monsters called, not very imaginatively, deviants. They look like they’ve been made out of flexible steel pipes. They were sent by a God-like Celestial called Arishem. We see them at different points in human history, fighting deviants, learning to use their powers, bickering, and occasionally interfering in human affairs by helping out with some advanced technology.

In the present day, the group has split up, so, like “Avengers: Endgame” there is a long getting-the-band-back-together section, but in this case we don’t have a 20+ movie investment in the characters so it is more about providing an opportunity to introduce the Eternals and provide some comic relief. That welcome respite comes from newly-buff Kumail Nanjiani, who has become a Bollywood movie star (his dance number is a treat).

There are so many characters and so many powers and so many run-ins and conflicts and shifts that there simply is not room to go into them, so I’m going to summarize some of the film’s strengths and weaknesses instead of trying to recap even the basics of the characters and storyline.

Strength: the cast is excellent and it is a delight to see this group of first-rate performers, one of the most diverse in any film in any category, doing their best and having fun. Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie is Thena, an Eternal who sometimes has a breakdown and starts attacking the others instead of the divergents. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has a powerful punch, but he spends centuries caring for Thena and their scenes together are touching. Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians” plays a sometime leader of the group with grace.

Weakness: there are too many characters, even for a movie that is more than 2 1/2 hours long (including the TWO credit sequences).

Strength: the cinematography is beautiful. Some people will disagree, but I thought the delicate gold filigree-like effects indicating the Eternals’ powers are lovely.

Weakness: The specifics and distinctions of the various powers are not as clear as they should be, and the same goes for the creatures they are fighting. We need a clearer idea of the stakes to understand the fight scenes.

Weakness: Speaking of stakes, the perameters of the Eternals’ mission it fuzzy as well. They’re not supposed to interfere with the affairs of humans. Except kind of sometimes.

Strength: The diversity of the characters was outstanding. It was organic, never artificial, and added enormously to the storyline.

Conclusion: It’s too long. It doesn’t hold together. Its actors are stronger than their characters. It looks lovely.

Parents should know that this movie has extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and references to real-life events like the bombing of Hiroshima. There is some strong language and an explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Which of the Eternals do you like the best? Which powers would you like to have? What should you know before following someone’s instructions?

If you like this, try: the comics and the other Marvel movies

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Halloween Movies for Families — 2021

Posted on October 26, 2021 at 8:00 am

Happy Halloween!

Halloween gives kids a thrilling opportunity to act out their dreams and pretend to be characters with great power. But it can also be scary and even overwhelming for the littlest trick-or-treaters. An introduction to the holiday with videos from trusted friends can help make them feel comfortable and excited about even the spookier aspects of the holiday. Movies for families to share are especially important this year, as there won’t be much trick-or-treating or many Halloween parties.

Kids ages 3-5 will enjoy Barney’s Halloween Party, with a visit to the pumpkin farm, some ideas for Halloween party games and for making Halloween decorations at home, and some safety tips for trick-or-treating at night. They will also get a kick out of Richard Scarry’s The First Halloween Ever, which is Scarry, but not at all scary!

Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest has the beloved little monkey investigating the Legend of “No Noggin.” Disney characters celebrate Halloween in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse – Mickey’s Treat.

Witches in Stitches is about witches who find it very funny when they turn their sister into a jack o’lantern. And speaking of jack o’lanterns, Spookley the Square Pumpkin (now on Netflix), which is sort of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer of pumpkins. The round pumpkins make fun of him for being different until a big storm comes and his unusual shape turns out to have some benefits.

Kids from 7-11 will enjoy a Halloween treat from Netflix, A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting. It has gorgeously imagined settings, a great cast, and an exciting story that hits the exact sweet spot between funny-scary and scary-funny. Which means it is exciting, fun, and, I hope, soon to be followed by Chapter 2. Over at DisneyPlus, “Muppets Haunted Mansion” combines all the Muppet favorites with one of the most popular attractions at the Disney theme parks.

Don’t forget the classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and the silly fun of What’s New Scooby-Doo: Halloween Boos and Clues. Try The Worst Witch movie and series, about a young witch in training who keeps getting everything wrong. School-age kids will also enjoy The Halloween Tree, an animated version of a story by science fiction author Ray Bradbury about four kids who are trying to save the life of their friend. Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock on the original “Star Trek”) provides the voice of the mysterious resident of a haunted house, who explains the origins of Halloween and challenges them to think about how they can help their sick friend. The loyalty and courage of the kids is very touching.

Debbie Reynolds plays a witch who takes her grandchildren on a Halloween adventure in the Disney Channel classic in Halloweentown.  Recent favorites include The House with a Clock in Its Walls and Goosebumps.

Older children will appreciate The Witches, based on the popular book by Roald Dahl ((the original with Anjelica Huston, not the remake with Anne Hathaway) and Hocus Pocus, with children battling three witches played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy. And of course there is the deliciously ghoulish live-action double feature Addams Family and Addams Family Values based on the cartoons by Charles Addams. Episodes of the classic old television show are online and  there are now two animated films for younger kids. The second is better than the first.   Beetlejuice is a classic, now even a Broadway musical. I’m fond of Beautiful Creatures, based on the best-selling YA novels about a witchy family in the American South.

LAIKA’s ParaNorman and Monster House  are two wonderful movies that should become a  family Halloween tradition. Frankenweenie,  Igor, and the Hotel Transylvania series are also a lot of fun.

The Nightmare Before Christmas has gorgeous music from Danny Elfman and stunningly imaginative visuals from Tim Burton in a story about a Halloween character who wonders what it would be like to be part of a happy holiday like Christmas. And don’t forget old classics like The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (horror/comedy treats) and the omnibus ghost story films Dead of Night and The House that Dripped Blood.

Looking for a romantic comedy for Halloween? Try Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, and Jack Lemmon in “Bell Book and Candle.”

Or Frederic March and Veronica Lake in “I Married a Witch.”

 

Happy Halloween!

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Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 10, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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Ron’s Gone Wrong

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:15 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude material, thematic elements and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril nd violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright 2021 20th Century
“Ron’s Gone Wrong,” the first feature from Locksmith Animation, has excellent voice talent but average character design and storyline. And it is unfortunately similar in theme to other films including the recent and much better “Mitchells vs. the Machines.” Its heart is in the right place and it is reasonably entertaining for children but forgettable.

Like “Short Circuit,” it is the story of a malfunctioning robot that is better than a correctly functioning robot because its imperfections make it more human and relatable, more “real.” The storyline is reminiscent of many other films including “Big Hero 6” and “E.T.”

Barney (voiced by the terrific Jack Dylan Grazer of “Shazam”) lives with his single dad, Graham (Ed Helms), and his Bulgarian grandmother Donka (Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman). Money is tight, and Graham, while devoted to his son, is often distracted and worried.

Marc (Justice Smith) is a young tech whiz who has a big announcement at his Apple-like computer company. He is presenting his latest invention, the ultimate accessory, a rolling robot friend, a cross between the Amazon Echo, the Apple Watch, Al Capp’s Shmoos, and Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet.” While Marc’s plan is just to create a machine that will learn all about its owners so it can be ever-interested, ever-responsive, an ideal companion. His colleague Andrew (Rob Delaney) sees the purpose of the cute little B-Bots differently. All that information about your background and preferences you so willingly share with your B-Bot? Andrew is going to make a ton of money selling it!

Barney feels like an outcast at school. His teacher pushes him to sit on the “Buddy Bench” at recess to let his classmates know he would like to make a friend, but he feels humiliated. All the other kids have B-Bots, which they use for everything from “influencer” social media posts to games, communication, so much of social interaction that they have just about forgotten how to talk to each other directly. But Barney does not have a bot because his father cannot afford it.

And then it is his birthday, and Donka surprises him with a bot, except that this one is unauthorized because it was damaged falling off a truck. That is Ron (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), and he and Barney begin to get to know one another, Ron’s mistakes, mostly from being overly literal, only endear him to his new owner/friend.

So, unlike Ron, as far as the script goes all the pieces are in place for Barney and his classmates to learn some lessons about friendship and not relying on social media for feedback and approval and for some of the grown-ups to learn some lessons about priorities and the risks of capitalism. It all unfolds as expected with not enough original moments along the way. The movie needs to learn its own lesson that a safe, predictable by-the-numbers formula is a little boring.

Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language and some peril and mild violence. Barney is mourning his late mother.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Barney to make friends? What else could he have done? Would you like to have a B-Bot? What would you do with it?

If you like this, try: “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”

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The French Dispatch

Posted on October 20, 2021 at 10:00 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, graphic nudity, and some sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including kidnapping of a child and a shoot-out, student uprising
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright 2021 Searchlight
The dictionary has two conflicting definitions for the word “precious,” and both apply to writer/director Wes Anderson’s films as a group and to his latest, “The French Dispatch” especially. “Precious” can mean very valuable or important, deserving of being carefully preserved. And it can also mean excessively refined or affected. If you are an Anderson fan, you will be glad to hear this is the Wes Anderson-iest Wes Anderson film so far. If you are not, well, you’ve been warned.

Anderson’s exquisitely assembled films are more Cornell Box or M.C. Escher puzzle than narrative, the props and settings more important than the characters or storyline. I enjoy the attention to detail and the whimsy of his films, occasionally spiced with moments of, sorry, il faut parler français por un instant, “choquer le bourgeois.” I love his repertory cast of actors, who are always clearly having a blast and not quite winking at the audience. But I also find them claustrophobic, and overly precious in both senses of the word, speaking to those who feel smug about understanding them in a way they believe ordinary, less sophisticated people can not. Like that French I used just now, which by the way means: “it is necessary to speak French for a minute to ‘shock the ordinary people.'” See? It works just fine en englais. Anderson seems to aim for whimsy but one thing whimsy cannot be is heavy-handed.

Anderson has found the idea subject for “The French Dispatch,” a real-life publication almost as precious (still in both senses of the word) as his fantasized characters and environments, The New Yorker, and in particular the New Yorker of the romanticized era of the mid-20th century. There is a long list of New Yorker writers and editors who are listed in the end credits, including the two legendary editors, co-founder and editor from 1925-1951 Harold Ross and William Shawn, editor from 1952-1987 (and father of writer/actor Wallace Shawn).

The film is both an anthology and a retrospective, again Anderson’s preferred matryoshka Russian nesting doll narrative structure. Is with the death of the title publication’s founder and editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), a “Citizen Kane” style set-up that continues with peeks inside some of the magazine’s classic stories, delivered as chapters. The setting is the fictional French town of “Ennui-sur-Blasé” (ennui and blasé both French words adopted by English speakers meaning world-weary and bored). The premise is a look inside an issue of the magazine, which, following the orders of its founder, will cease publication after his death. In another layer of matryoskha, The New Yorker reported that the parallels between its real-life articles and the film include: Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), inspired by writer Joseph Mitchell. Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), inspired by Lord Duveen, the subject of a 1951 six-part New Yorker profile by S. N. Behrman. Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), inspired by James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling. Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), inspired by Mavis Gallant, who wrote a two-part 1968 piece on the student uprisings in France.

There are stories within stories as we see the writers discuss what they have written. J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, fabulously, of course) delivers a lecture to an audience with slides showing the work of an acclaimed artist (Benecio del Toro) who happens to be criminally insane and confined to prison, where his muse and nude model is one of the guards (Léa Seydoux). Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) is a steely observer of student unrest who gets involved with one of the young leaders (Timothée Chalamet). The strongest of the stories has Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, who can perfectly recall every word he has written and is invited by a television interviewer (Liev Schreiber) to recite from memory his very convoluted story about the kidnapping of young boy. Wright’s melodious, slightly husky voice in Anderson’s near-monotone style set opposite a story of grotesque twists and turns tilts toward precious in the second sense of the word, but the sheer charisma of the design, with Anderson’s signature dollhouse-style cutaways, has some of the first meaning of the word as well.

Parents should know that this film has sexual references and non-explicit situations, some strong language, and some peril and violence, including a kidnapping, poison, and a shoot-out with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Which of the stories did you like best?

If you like this, try: “The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Royal Tennenbaums,” and the books about the New Yorker by James Thurber and Brendan Gill

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