Belle (2022)

Posted on January 13, 2022 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, language, brief suggestive material, violence
Profanity: Rude language, bullies
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of parents, child abuse, peril, scary monster
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 14, 2022

Copyright GKIDS 2021
“Belle” is a spectacularly beautiful animated film from Japan (opening theatrically in both Japanese and English versions) with dazzling images out of a classic fairy tale but a storyline that could not be more contemporary.

The film begins with a commercial for “the ultimate online community” called silly U, with more than five billion participants. It is an online “sandbox”-style game where participants has an avatar based on their own biometric data. They have endless freedom to create the world as they want it to be. It sells itself both as “another reality” where, unlike this reality, you can have a second chance and start a new life and as a place where you can be yourself in a way that the trivialities of real life like the way you look do not allow.

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura in the original Japanese cast, Kylie McNeill in the English language version) is a sad, shy, lonely teenager living in rural Japan. She is still mourning the death of her mother, who lost her life saving a drowning child as then-six-year-old Suzu watched in horror, and she feels abandoned. “Why was a stranger’s life more important than being with me?” she sill asks. Her father is remote and the only person she has to talk to is her tech-savvy friend, Ruka (Tina Tamashiro/Hunter Schafer). In these early scenes, her face is almost always obscured. We see her from the back or she puts her head down so her hair hides her face. When her classmates invite her to sing karaoke at a party she runs out of the room, sick to her stomach.

But the avatar she creates on U is another story. At first, she hesitantly types in her real name, but then erases it and creates a glamorous pop star with flowing pink hair named Bell. (Suzu keys it in with just four letters but the fans add an “e” at the end, inspired by the French word for “beautiful.”) Within days, she has millions of followers. She also has millions of critics. Ruka tries to reassure her: “Stardom is built on a mixed reception.” In real life, we see Suzu smile for the first time. Belle becomes a worldwide sensation, disconcerting the previous U world favorite.

And then, as millions are assembled for a virtual concert, it is disrupted by a dragon monster. The rest of the story is inspired in part by “Beauty and the Beast” as Suzu/Belle tries to find out who the beast really is and what he wants.

The screenplay takes a nuanced approach to the virtual world, wisely recognizing that it is just a projection of the real world, sometimes a distorted one, but one that can serve as training wheels, a Rorschach test, a beta test, or even a place to find answers not available anywhere else. Belle is Suzu, after all, and the more she performs as Belle, the more she discovers her own confidence. Finally, when she understands for the first time how her mother could take a risk to save another life, she learns that helping others is a way to find agency, connection, and purpose.

All of this takes place in a gorgeously imagined world so inviting and full of delight we almost wish for a U app on our phones. “Belle” is a touching story that is both timely and timeless.

Parents should know that there are sad parental deaths, domestic abuse issues, some harsh schoolyard insults, and some mild boy-girl interactions.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Ready Player One” and another re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast, “Beastly”

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Behind the Scenes — Hotel Transylvania: Transformania

Posted on January 12, 2022 at 8:00 am

Copyright Sony 2021
The fourth “Hotel Transylvania” is my favorite of the series. There are some new voices, with Brian Hull taking over for Adam Sandler as Drac, Brad Abrell filling in for Kevin James as Frankenstein, and Keegan-Michael Key as The Mummy, replacing CeeLo Green.

The first three films were centered on the difficulty Drac, a vampire (Hull), had in accepting Johnny (Andy Samberg), the human who married his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez). In this movie, there’s a switch. Johnny wants to become a monster and gets Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) to turn a transforming ray on him. So, the human becomes a monster and, through a malfunction, the ray gets turned on the monsters — the Invisible Man (David Spade), Murray the Mummy (Key), Wayne the wolfman (Steve Buscemi), Frankenstein (Abrell) and his Bride, Eunice (Fran Drescher). They become human, so we get to see what the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, and the Mummy really look like and how they respond when they don’t have their special powers. But Mavis has to find a way to get Johnny back to his human self before it is too late.

In a virtual press event, the actors talked about becoming “monsterfricationized” (Samberg’s term) and the freedom of animation. “I loved the new design,” Samberg said, “Burning Man back-packer meets Godzilla, a dream come true for me.” Spade said his character is “a bit of a scene-stealer” and a “goofy ding-dong who hangs out with the monsters.” He said the animators originally wanted the surprise to be how handsome his character was, but he urged them to make him funny-looking. “It’s a cartoon! It should be funny.”

Key was surprised by what his always-wrapped character looked like under it all. “I expected him to be bigger, with one revolution of wraps.” His favorite thing was the way his character was “really working the jowls,” which gave him a different idea about the voice. He loved the concept of not having any limitations. The look of the characters is so exaggerated that you can do anything, like when you’re a kid and playing with other kids. You get to channel all that abandon and it’s only not frowned upon; it’s encouraged.”

Drescher and Gomez urged the audience not to worry about pressure to fit in. Gomez advised taking a break from social media and focusing on a small group of real friends. Drescher said “compassion should be your compass.”

“You pretty much know they want you to go huge and insane, and then they’re going to go further with the animation,” Samberg said, and the others agreed that they enjoyed never being asked to tone it down.

Gomez said “it’s been wonderful to grow with this character. She’s tough and she’s always worrying, and that matches my personality well. I know what it’s like to have differences between family members and it is nice that we’re touching on a real thing in such a crazy way.”

Drescher loves physical comedy and the way it is even bigger in animation. “You can so so much because it’s a make-believe world. You can contort the how far can we physically take these characters to do funny and surprising things.”

Samberg said he did not expect the first movie to inspire three sequels, but he is delighted. “They’re so infused with joy and positivity. Everyone grew up loving this classic monsters and it’s a new spin on it. That’s why it endured.”

Key appreciates the combination of imagination, humor, and character. “An adult can be laughing at a hard joke in this film, but the way all the relationships play out, it’s well-observed and very relatable.”

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Actors Behind the Scenes

Trailer: Moonfall

Posted on January 6, 2022 at 5:38 pm

Halle Berry (“Jocinda Fowler,” left) and Patrick Wilson (“Brian Harper,” right) as stranded astronauts in the sci-fi epic MOONFALL.

When the moon explodes, who can save the day? Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, John Bradley, Michael Peña, Charlie Plummer, Kelly Yu, Eme Ikwuakor, Carolina Bartczak, and Donald Sutherland! The Lionsgate film will open in theaters on February 4, 2022.

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Science-Fiction Trailers, Previews, and Clips

The 355

Posted on January 6, 2022 at 5:24 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, brief strong language, and suggestive material
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drinking to relieve stress
Diversity Issues: Extended action-style peril and violence, torture, murder, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Date Released to Theaters: January 7, 2022

Copyright Universal 2021
It’s a little bit “Bourne,” a little bit “Avengers,” and a little bit “The A-Team” except that the main characters are women and unlike “The A-Team,” the plan never really comes together. And by “plan,” I mean the script.

This is a continent-hopping spy story that has such low expectations of its audience that an establishing shot of Paris clearly showing the Eiffel Tower is helpfully labeled “Paris, France” and one of Washington, D.C. showing the Capitol and Washington Monument is helpfully labeled “Washington, D.C., USA.” At least they did not add, “Planet Earth.”

The storyline, which hardly rises to the level of a plot, is similarly simple. There’s a McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is that everyone in the movie is trying to get). There’s a hard drive with a program that could disrupt anything, from financial records to cell phones to airplane navigation systems. Spies from different countries are trying to keep it from the bad guys. At first, they are each on their own. But, hang on for the big surprise, they have to learn to trust each other and work together. There’s another “surprise” I won’t spoil except to say it’s clear what’s happening in the first 15 minutes and most of the movie is getting it, losing it, and getting it back again.

The spies are: American Mace (Jessica Chastain), a CIA field agent gone rogue since the death of her partner, British former MI6 computer whiz who is determined to stay away from spying Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), German Marie (Diane Kruger), fighting the suspicion that she may be a double agent, and Colombian Graciela (Penelope Cruz), who is a therapist, not a spy, insisting she will never use a gun, and just wants to get home to her husband and children. Other members of the cast whose roles I won’t spoil are Sebastian Stan (Bucky in the MCU) and Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing.

The title refers to a real-life female spy of the Revolutionary War era whose identity is still unknown to this day. You’d be much better off watching that story in the television series “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”Even by the very, very low standards of early January movies (Liam Neeson, where are you?), always a dumping ground for films the studios want to get off their books, and even with an all-star cast (two Oscar-winners in this mess!) “The 355” fails in its most basic tasks, telegraphing every development with a cinematic bullhorn (you think Graciela is not going to end up shooting a gun?). Only Bingbing is at all credible in the fight scenes and she arrives too late to make it worthwhile. There are a couple of brighter moments when the ladies are just hanging out, but the action scenes are poorly staged and the non-action scenes are repetitive and dull. The scariest part of the movie is the conclusion promising a sequel.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action violence with chases, explosions, shooting, torture, poison, and fight scenes.

Family discussion: Why did the spies decide to trust each other? When did they trust the wrong people?

If you like this, try: “The Transporter” and “Hobbs & Shaw,” and better films from these performers

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