Haunted Mansion

Posted on July 26, 2023 at 7:54 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for scary action and some thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended horror-style images, scary ghosts, many references to murder and mayhem, disturbing images, very sad (offscreen) deaths
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 28, 2023

Copyright Disney 2023
I am a huge fan of Disney World’s Haunted Mansion and I enjoyed this movie but I have to admit the biggest laugh I got was from the opening credits listing Jared Leto as “The Hatbox Ghost.” I mean, talk about too on the nose.

We will not speak of Disney’s first attempt to make a movie based on one of its most popular attractions, except to say that this one is much, much better, with a starry cast, Disney’s can’t-be-beat production design from
Darren Gilford, and, like the theme park attraction, just the right balance of chills, thrills, and comedy.

I highly recommend the “Behind the Attraction” episode about the creation of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and Disney World (on Disney+). It has a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes details about the people and the choices that went into creating the creepy house with elongated elevator, the “Doom Buggy,” and the hitchhiking ghosts that follow you home. You will see th “breath mint, no it’s a candy mint” back-and-forth about whether it was supposed to be funny or scary, and how it ended up as both. Director Justin Simien (“Dear White People” and screenwriter Katie Dippold expertly balance scary and funny in the tradition of the attraction and of classic haunted house films like “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Canterville Ghost,” and “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.”

The setting, like the imaginary location of the Disney World attraction, is New Orleans. We meet our reluctant hero, Ben Mathias (LaKeith Stanfield) as a shy astrophysicist specializing in lenses to view the previously unseen around us, as he is meeting the woman who will become his wife, Alyssa (Charity Jordan). She says she is also in the business of locating the unseen. She conducts ghost tours.

A few years later, Alyssa has died, and Ben is consumed with grief and guilt. He drinks too much, and he is a grumpy tour guide, strictly history, nothing paranormal. (I’ve been on a New Orleans ghost tour, by the way, well worth it, but watch out for some damaging misdirection.) He gets a visit from a priest named Kent (Owen Wilson), who has been asked to perform an exorcism at a huge haunted mansion recently purchased by a doctor (Gabbie, played by Rosario Dawson with a severe hairstyle), a recent widow with a young son. Ben has no interest in the job and is certain there is no such thing as ghosts, but he cannot resist the $10,000 fee. He half-heartedly pretends to use his fancy lens in a camera with a dead battery to seek ghosts in the house and pronounces it ghost-free.

Needless to say, it is not. And one of the ghosts, a very soggy one, follows him home and forces him to return, this time with a working camera. Soon Gabbie, her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), Kent and Ben are trying to figure out what is behind all of the hauntings, along with two other members of the team, historian Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito) and medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish). This self-titled Dream Team has to figure out how to placate the evil spirit before he collects his 1000th soul and is able to wreck havoc on the rest of the world.

The fabulously talented cast gives their all and their all is great fun to watch. Stanfield is, as always brilliant, giving us authenticity in the depiction of his sense of loss without conflicting with the movie’s overall heightened tone. Haddish is hilarious but grounded as the medium, and DeVito gets a chance to, I’m just going to say, get wild. Fans of the attraction will get a big kick out of the many references to its most beloved and iconic objects and characters. This should be a Halloween favorite for generations of families.

There is also a powerhouse list of supporting performers, including Oscar-winner Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota, one of the attraction’s most iconic figures. The original was named for Imagineer Leota “Toombs” Thomas, who provided the spooky head chanting incantations in the crystal ball. Daniel Levy has a tiny role (please let there be deleted scenes) as an actor in another spooky historic mansion. And Hasan Minhaj is very funny as a skeptical but very accurate police sketch artist. As for Oscar-winner Leto, well, he is, as is often the case, unrecognizable as a character originally designed for the attraction but not added until much later, when the technology caught up with the concept.

The movie is scary at times but the references to many murders and offscreen deaths that have caused devastating grief for the characters is more disturbing than the gruesome imagery. Simien is very good at breaking the tension with humor just when it is needed. Like the theme park classic, t is sure to be a Halloween favorite for generations to come.

NOTE: Reportedly, Simien insisted on a Black leading man. For those of us with a sense of movie history, it was especially satisfying to have a Black man as the hero, because this genre often had some of the most damaging stereotypes in movie history, with the only Black characters being terrified in a silly manner as comic relief.

Parents should know: This movie includes many scary and disturbing paranormal images and concepts, with murderous ghosts and grisly images. There are extremely sad offscreen deaths, including a parent and a wife.

Family discussion: Do you believe in ghosts? What did the characters learn about the best way to deal with them? Watch the “Behind the Attraction” episode about the Haunted Mansion and when you get a chance, visit it!

If you like this, try: “The Canterville Ghost,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” and “The Addams Family” and its sequel

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Posted on July 18, 2023 at 7:15 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive references and brief language
Profanity: One bleeped strong word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Kens drink a lot of "brewski"
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 21, 2023

Copyright 2023 Warner Brothers
I came out of the “Barbie” movie feeling better about Barbie’s world and better about mine, and I think you will, too. Greta Gerwig directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach, and it is utterly captivating, engaging honestly with all that is enticing and all that is troubling about the world’s most popular doll and the way she is both symbol and perpetuator of positive and negative aspirations. Barbie is available in every possible profession, from pilot to doctor to President to nine different Olympic athletes, twelve different kinds of chef, seven different kinds of musician and five kinds of singer including jazz and rap. She works at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and See’s Candy, and operates a stall at the farmer’s market. She is a pet groomer, a corporate Chief Sustainability Officer, and she sells Mary Kay products. There are dozens more, plus whatever the girls (mostly) who play with her can dream, but her ridiculously exaggerated feminine shape and essential plastic, consumerist role are concerning. I admit, I had and loved my Barbie, then tried to dissuade my daughter from Barbie-ism. She was given a Barbie and Ken by an aunt, and she loved them. I was wrong. Resistance is futile.

This film begins with all of the fun of Barbie world, as we meet “stereotypical” or original Barbie (Margot Robbie), whose life is one perfect day after another. She wakes up in her Barbie dream house, enjoys her pretend breakfast, then stops by the beach, where the Kens hang out (their job is “beach” — not lifeguard, not surfer, just beach). She believes that the Barbies took over from the centuries-old tradition of giving little girls baby dolls, so they could pretend only to be mothers and housewives, the chance to play with adult woman dolls mastering every profession led to unobstructed opportunity and accomplishment in the real world. In Barbie world, everything is pink and pristine, and everyone (almost) is a Barbie or a Ken. The Supreme Court is all Barbies. Construction crews are all Barbies. President Barbie (Issa Rae) presides in a pink version of the White House. The Barbies love to have girls’ night sleepovers and huge parties with choreography. Kens are just there to admire and support the Barbies. Ryan Gosling plays the Ken who lives for the brief moments each day when Barbie notices him.

Every day is the same and every day is perfect…until one day things start to go wrong. Barbie starts to ponder the prospect of death. Just as disturbing, her perfectly arched, high-heel-ready feet are suddenly FLAT!! She visits Weird Barbie (no one does weird better than Kate McKinnon), who offers her the red pill/blue pill option: does she want to stay in blissful ignorance or does she want to visit the real world, where the dark thoughts of the person playing with the doll are coming from.

And so Barbie and Ken find themselves rollerblading on a real beach, and immediately getting into trouble. For all of her consumer purchases, Barbie does not have any money. When they escape the real world and get back to Barbie world and bring that trouble with him. Ken has learned about the patriarchy and likes the idea of men running everything. The Barbies have never had to face a challenge like that. Will the Kens take over Barbie world?

The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and production design by Sarah Greenwood make Barbie world enticing and Robbie and Gosling inhabit their roles with endless charm that almost disguises the precision of their craft. This is not a parody or a high satire. The terrific screenplay skillfully mixes the silly with the heartfelt and the actors deliver with every shift.

Adorably, Gerwig and Baumbach bring in some of the most strange and esoteric aspects of real-life Barbie history and as we see in the closing credits all of it is real. Michael Cera plays Allan, based on a briefly available friend for Ken. We also see the pregnant Midge, the Barbie who is also a camera, and pubescent “Growing Up Skipper.” And we get a monologue from working mother Gloria (America Ferrara) that ties together the crushingly unrealistic expectations of women that Barbie represents and perpetuates. And narration from Dame Helen Mirren is a lovely touch. The Barbies and Kens are diverse in race and body type, with Simu Liu and Rae so good they left me wishing for a spin-off. The movie comes down on the side of heart and brain, fantasy and reality, and, of course, the Indigo Girls.

There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
Closer I am to fine.

Parents should know that this movie is not for children. There are references to the dolls’ lack of genitals and some mild sexual references, Kens drink a lot of beer, and there is a bleeped out bad word. More important, the film deals with issues of purpose and meaning and struggle that younger viewers may find troubling.

Family discussion: Have you ever played with a Barbie? If not, why not and if so, which Barbie did you like?

If you like this, try: Forever Barbie, a terrific history of the doll, and Barbie and Ruth, the story of the real-life Ruth Handler, played by Rhea Perlman in the film

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Theater Camp

Posted on July 13, 2023 at 5:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language, suggestive material, and /drug references
Profanity: Some strong anguage
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 14, 2023

Copyright Searchlight 2023
“Theater Camp” is a true labor of love from people who are former theater kids. They love the children who somehow know from birth that they were born to be performers, and seem to bypass the world of Raffi, JoJo, pop, and rock but know all of the songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Stephen Sondheim by the time when they’re still collecting from the tooth fairy.

Molly Gordon (“Broken Hearts Gallery”), Ben Platt (“Dear Evan Hanson” and “Pitch Perfect”), Noah Galvin (“The Real O’Neals”) and Nick Lieberman clearly know and love the world of theater kids, so the humor is pointed but affectionate. The passion for performance in both the kids and the adults who teach them is sometimes over the top, but the film is clear that it is these special people who can “turn cardboard into gold.” And at the heart of the film is what someone says near the end: theater camp is a place for people who are not accepted anyplace else.

The camp is called AdirondACTS and it is owned by Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sederis) and managed by Rita Cohen (Caroline Aaron of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). They are good at scrambling to get enough campers and enough money to keep it going (“I know he’s awful and tone deaf but his father is rich”) until Joan has a seizure at a grade school production of “Bye Bye Birdie” (one of the film’s weakest ideas). She is in a coma and so her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) has to take over. He as very much not a theater kid and he is not a business guy, either. The snooty rich kid camp sees this as an opportunity, and their representative (Patti Harrison) makes an offer to take it over.

The camp teachers include alumnae Amos (Tony winner Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), whose ultra-close friendship is getting claustrophobic. Each year, they create an original musical for the campers to put on, and this year it will be “Joan, Still,” a tribute to the camp founder. There are also other productions, including a junior version of “The Crucible.” And there is an exhausted tech (a terrific Noah Galvin) and a teacher assigned to cover everything from masks to stage combat even though she has no idea about any of it and lied on her resume (a game Ayo Edebiri).

The film gently points at the pretensions and dysfunctions in the world of theater kids and adults, but it reminds us that they really do turn cardboard into gold throughout, especially with a final musical number that is at the same time rousing, hilarious, and heartwarming.

Parents should know that this movie has some strong language, a drug reference involving children, and some mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Why did Amos call himself a performer working full-time as a teacher? Why didn’t Rebecca-Diane tell him what she was doing? What is the best part of being in a show?

If you like this, try: “Camp,” “Magic Camp,” and “Waiting for Guffman”

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Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning: Part One

Posted on July 11, 2023 at 4:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language and suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 14, 2023
Date Released to DVD: October 30, 2023

The only cumbersome element of Tom Cruise’s latest is the title: “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning: Part One.” Every other bit of its almost three-hour run time is taut, limber, and a thrill ride.

Copyright Paramount 2023

Really, what more do you want to know? There’s a McMuffin, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is that our hero(es) are after, to be described very briefly. All we need to know is that the fate of the world depends on its being in the hands of the good guys and not the bad guys. And that is so powerful that many, many bad guys are after it. You know how from the very beginning of the “Mission: Impossible” television series there was that instantly iconic message about “your mission, should you decide to accept it,” and “as always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Well, this is so ramped up that if any of them are caught or killed, it’s game over and they might not be any Secretaries left to avow or disavow.” Got that? Then buckle up, my friends, but because the rest is going to come at you very fast.

Okay, so there’s the Thing, and this being 2023, that Thing is an AI that has gotten out of hand and can no longer be controlled by humans. It can access and distort any source of information we rely on, from news media to bank But it is not very cinematic chasing after thumb drives, so it turns out that what our heroes have to track down is two old-fashioned bejeweled gold keys that look like they were crafted by artisans in the Middle Ages.

The supporting cast is very strong, with Vanessa Kirby returning as The White Widow and Rebecca Ferguson as Isla Faust. Hayley Atwell plays a new character and if I tell you she’s a clever pickpocket who is sometimes a good guy and sometimes not and you say, “Wait, didn’t we just see Phoebe Waller-Bridge doing the exact same thing in ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny?'” I will just say, “Shhh, sit back and enjoy the action.”

Of course Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, who 30 years ago was given a choice — prison or off-book black ops for the CIA. This harks back to another 1960s television series around the time of the first “Mission: Impossible” era, “It Takes a Thief,” with Robert Wagner, but why waste time on original ideas for the story or the dialogue (even clunkier here than in the previous entries); we’re here for the stunts, and they are never less than spectacular. You know that crazy scene in the trailer when he drives his motorcycle off a cliff? It gets crazier after that. And then it gets CRAZY. My heart was still thumping half the way home from the theater.

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and violence

Family discussion: What is the best way to make sure AI does not get out of hand? How does Ethan think through problems when his plans do not work? Is the choice he had to make a fair one?

If you like this, try: the other “Mission: Impossible” movies and the two “Top Gun” movies

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Joy Ride

Posted on July 6, 2023 at 5:46 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
Profanity: Extremely strong and crude language
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Copyright 2023 Lionsgate

It’s not unusual to see a “Oh, no, they didn’t” cheerfully raunchy comedies like the “Harold and Kumar” films, and Seth Rogen’s “Superbad,” “Neighbors,” and “Pineapple Express,” but it is almost unheard of to see one with women as the lead characters (though I don’t think “The Sweetest Thing” is as bad as its reputation). It’s also almost unheard of to see a wild American comedy with all Asian characters. “Joy Ride,” with Rogen as one of the producers, is directed by Adele Lim, one of the screenwriters of “Crazy Rich Asians,” who also gets co-story by credit. That helps to make “Joy Ride” a welcome addition to the genre.

This is not about witty repartee or storyline. A lot of the comedy is just the shock value of seeing these actresses in such outrageous situations, especially seeing women who are very sex-positive, frank about their desires and their actions. But the most successful of this genre work because of the relationships at the heart — in every way — of the story, and the strength of this movie is not the raunch but the friendships.

The only Asian children in a suburban Oregon community are Audrey, a girl adopted from China by white parents, and Lolo, the daughter of a Chinese family. They become instant best friends at age six when Lolo punches a bully who calls them a racist name, and then we get a quick montage, watching them grow up, Audrey (now played by Ashley Park) always at the head of the class and then an ambitious young lawyer, Lolo (Sherry Cola) an artist specializing in extremely explicit sexual imagery. There are a lot of “extremelys” in this movie.

Audrey gets a chance to impress her boss. There’s an opportunity in China. All she has to do is close the deal. And if she allowed her partners to believe that her command of Chinese is more than the two days she’s spent on DuoLingo, that is fine with her. She’s got the language on lockdown because her college roommate, Kat (“Everything Everywhere’s” Stephanie Hsu), now a popular actress in China, has agreed to act as translator. Lola, who speaks Chinese, comes along as a back-up, and her cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), a nerdy K-Pop fan, tags along, too.

Audrey has never been interested in tracking down her birth mother. But the potential client says she should bring her mother to a gathering, and, after things go disastrously on their first meeting, she is desperate. The four women go off on a wild adventure that includes getting caught up with an American drug dealer, having their bags and passports stolen, some very intense sexual encounters (lucky thing that busload of handsome athletes came by!), and some big surprises about Audrey’s bio-family.

All four actresses are clearly having a blast, relishing the opportunity to get down and dirty. There is just enough specificity about their experiences to add interest without distracting us from the next wacky adventure. And the cast and the characters they play are so varied there is never a risk of caricature. The movie is having fun with them, not making fun of them. Even within the ultra-silliness of the storylines, most of which are weak but no one is there for the plot, each character has her own lesson to learn and bonds of friendship to strengthen. And drugs to hide and men to…well, you get the idea.

Parents should know that this movie is so filthy I could not even include the green band (supposed to be suitable for all audiences) trailer on this site. Character use very strong language, there are many explicit sexual situations, character drink, get drunk, and use drugs.

Family discussion: Why were Lola and Audrey friends? How did Audrey’s discovery change her idea about herself?

If you like this, try: “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”

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