Alita: Battle Angel

Posted on February 14, 2019 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, knives, guns, chases, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 15, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 22, 2019
Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox

The most surprising achievement of “Alita: Battle Angel,” a (mostly) live action version of a story that was originally a cyberpunk manga series of graphic novels and then an anime feature, is that somehow producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez managed to make the main characters anime-style eyes a lot less weird than I expected.

The title character (Rosa Salazar Rosa Salazar) is a young female cyborg with Keane-style manga eyes, so the uncanny valley risk of her look being distracting and disorienting. But it turned out to be easy to adjust to it and almost immediately I was immersed in the dazzling world of the film and caught up in the action. Cameron (“Terminator,” “Avatar,” “Titanic”) and Rodriguez (“Sin City,” “Desperado,” “From Dusk til Dawn”) are both visual masters. The world they have created is immersive and wildly imaginative and the action scenes are staged are dynamic and compelling. There’s heart to it as well, with an appealing heroine who brings us along with her as she sorts through the moral quandaries of this brutal environment, showing herself more human than the humans.

It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which the reduced population of Earth lives on what is essentially a planet-sized junk pile. A small group of wealthy elites live on a city suspended above earth like a gigantic Macy’s Thanksgiving parade balloon, as in the Matt Damon film “Elysium.” Everyone else just scrounges, scrambles, or battles for whatever they can.

Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) does what he can to help, replacing damaged body parts with sophisticated mechanical prostheses, many of the parts found through scavenging. Searching through rubble one day he finds a mangled treasure, the head and part of the torso of a cyborg girl. He brings her home and gives her arms and legs that look like they are made of delicately carved antique ivory. Their relationship recalls Geppetto and Pinocchio. He is the fond father of an adopted child that is very much his own creation. And as we will learn, the reason he had those lovingly prostheses ready is that he created them for a child who died before he could help her. Alita may be his second chance.

But Alita is not a little girl. As her memory comes back slowly, she becomes the warrior she was designed to be. She remembers her fighting skills first. Then some of the other details of her past begin to come back. She remembers that she fights and how she fights and something of why she fights though she is not as clear on where she came from or what her place is in the world.

A man named Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his physician colleague Cherin (Jennifer Connelly) run a lethal high-speed roller derby that is a “Hunger Games”-style form of Darwinian survival of the fittest entertainment and commerce — and a cover for some less public but more deadly activities. The other major economic enterprise of this society seems to be bounty hunting (including characters played by Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley) and chop shops for mechanical prostheses. One person involved is Hugo (Keean Johnson), who has to re-think what he has been doing when he finds himself falling for someone he might not have considered human before he looked into those big, big eyes.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril, action, and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images, guns, chases, explosions, some strong language, and kisses.

Family discussion: What does Dr. Ido want for Alita? Why did Chiren respond so differently to the death of her daughter?

If you like this, try: The “Star Wars” movies, “Speed Racer,” and “Jupiter Ascending”

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The LEGO Movie 2: The Second One

Posted on February 7, 2019 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 8, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 7, 2019

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second One” is a great big box of happiness in part because of its non-stop cheeky humor but also in part because it deals subtly but frankly with three of the most annoyingly painful and near-universal human experiences: fighting with siblings, adolescent moodiness, and stepping on LEGOs in bare feet.

The first movie ended with a surprisingly meaningful and warm-hearted pivot from animation into live action as it turned out the entire story had been grounded in a conflict between a boy who wanted to play and a dad who wanted his LEGO world to be pristine and orderly. The kicker at the end was that the touching reconciliation between father and son was followed by the arrival of the preschool sister with her toddler-sized Duplos, who had her own destructive powers.

There’s a bit more live action in this sequel, and we see more clearly the relationship between what is going on in the lives of the real-life family and the imaginary play of the two children, now five years older but no more interesting in joining forces.

Once again, Emmet (Chris Pratt) thinks everything is awesome, barely noticing that the bustling metropolis of Bricksburg has turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland known as Apocalypseburg (“a heckish place to live”). Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), formerly known as Wyldstyle, tries to teach Emmet how to brood properly. “Look out into the distance and say whatever grim thoughts you have in a deep voice.” As we saw at the end of the last film, the Duplos arrive from the Systar System. When they take Lucy, Emmet follows to rescue her.

Adults will catch onto the names of some of the perils our dauntless hero faces along the way, like Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (a perfectly cast Tiffany Haddish), Systar, the dreaded ArMAMAgetin, and that notorious hiding place for LEGO figures, Undah de Dryah. That is, if they are not trying to get the film’s guaranteed new hit song, “The Catchy Song” (“This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head..”), or laughing too hard at the avalanche of pop culture meta-references, especially a song that takes on every iteration of Batman from Adam West to Christian Bale and a new character who not only bears a strong resemblance to Emmet but to his portrayer, Chris Pratt, as well.

It’s fast, fresh, fun, and funny, with a skillful mix of silliness and action and some random call-outs to celebrities from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who’s having quite a moment on screen these days) and Bruce Willis, back where he should be, crawling through heating ducts. But it has something interesting to say about how we decide when to change and when not to, and about its female characters. And watching it just might ease the pain not just of the universal experiences mentioned above, but of that other heartbreak — having your children grow out of childhood.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/cartoon-style peril and slapstick humor and some potty humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why did Lucy want Emmet to change? What do you do when everything’s not awesome?

If you like this, try: The first LEGO movie, “Trolls” and the “Toy Story” films

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Ralph Breaks the Internet

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action/cartoon-style peril and chase scenes, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 25, 2019
Copyright 2018 Disney

I’ve got to warn you — you’re going to need to see “Ralph Breaks the Internet” at least twice. And I’ve got good news for you — it is well worth it. The sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” is “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and just like the Internet itself it is bursting with endless enticing distractions. But in the midst of all that is also a wise and warmhearted story with endearing characters. And it is a rare comedy that understands it is not enough to refer to a specific cultural touchstone; it has to have something to say about it. What it does have to say is so shrewd and funny it may merit a third viewing.

“Wreck-it Ralph” was about characters in old-fashioned video arcade games, the kind they used to have before we had laptops and phones that we could play games on. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is not exactly the bad guy but the menace in his very old-school game. All he does is break things that are repaired (if the game player is successful) by Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer). He ends up visiting some newer games, including a military first-person shooter game and a racing game called Sugar Rush, with the cars made of candy. There he meets a brash little girl with a pixel-shaking “glitch” named Vanellope. The happy ending resolves various issues and Ralph and Vanellope end up friends.

As this movie begins, everything seems to be going fine. Ralph is very happy meeting up with Vanellope every night after the arcade closes to talk about, well, everything. But the arcade owner (Ed O’Neill) is upgrading. “What is wiffy?” Ralph wants to know. That would be Wifi. And the next thing they know, Ralph and Vanellope are whisked into the big, wild world of the Internet and like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland and the Pevensies in Narnia, they will have many thrilling adventures and meet many astonishing characters before they find their way home. The characters’ idea of what home and friendship mean will be changed, shifted, or enlarged by their experience, one of the film’s most thoughtful elements.

But on the way there we have so much fun seeing the most familiar — and some of the most frustrating — elements of the digital world reflected and personified, and writer/directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore take advantage of Disney’s unsurpassed line-up of characters to fill the movie with surprising and hilarious cameos. The highlight is the funniest scene you will see at the movies this year, when Vanellope ends up in a room with the Disney princesses (almost all with the original voice talent). What’s great about this is that Johnston and Moore are the rare filmmakers who know that referring to a cultural icon is not enough; you have to say something about it. And what they have to say about the princesses strikes the perfect balance between affection and irony. No more waiting for a prince to come. These sisters are doing it for themselves. Also stopping to sing by water at some point, though.

The film is not just smart about culture, digital and IRL. It is smart about people, and especially about our fears and insecurities. It’s a rare film for children that goes beyond “friends are great!” and explores the delicate negotiations of relationships between people who may have different ideas about what they want. A wise man taught me a long time ago that everyone has different tolerance levels for ambiguity and that each of us has different tolerances for ambiguity across a wide range of categories. Someone can be comfortable taking big risks in one area, but not another. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has a deep understanding that even adults will find illuminating. Plus, it is a ton of fun and if you stay ALL the way to the end there is one more sly joke.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/video game-style peril and violence, chases, crashes, no one seriously hurt, and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: How are Ralph and Vanellope alike and how are they different? Which is your favorite Disney princess and why? What is your favorite thing about the Internet?

If you like this, try: “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia”

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The Meg

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character drinks to deal with stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters injured and killed, characters sacrifice themselves to save others, some grisly and disturbing images, sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 10, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 12, 2018

The Meg” is what an international distribution deal come to life looks like on screen. Take an assortment of actors of various races representing the nationalities of the major movie markets, especially China. Come up with an instantly recognizable concept (a prehistoric shark 75 feet long that can chomp through a whale with one bite!), an instantly recognizable bad guy (arrogant, selfish billionaire, in case that isn’t redundant), an instantly recognizable action hero (yay, Jason Statham!). Let’s put an adorably precocious child in the group, and give her angel wings, for goodness’ sakes, to make sure we see how adorable she is.

Add tons of first-class stunt work and digital effects, and make sure the dialogue is disposable enough it won’t matter if it translates well. In fact, with lines like “Man vs. Meg isn’t a fight. It’s a slaughter” and some painfully awkward romantic banter, this movie would be better viewed with no dialogue at all.

Copyright Universal 2018

Jason Statham plays Jonas, an expert at deep sea rescue who in a prologue has to make a split-second terrible decision. He saves some people, but many others are killed, and he is blamed. He insists that it was the only choice, and that if he had tried to rescue the others, everyone would have been killed, but the official finding is that he was suffering from underwater-pressure induced diminished capacity that caused hallucinations and poor judgment. Five years later, he is living in Thailand and drinking to forget everything he has lost.

That is when he gets a visit from an old friend, Mac (Cliff Curtis). The giant shark they said was a hallucination is real. It is a megladon, previously thought to have been extinct for millions of years, but now discovered in an expedition funded by Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) a crass billionaire all faux bonhomie and limitless entitlement. The research operation has gone to Earth’s deepest spot to prove that what had been thought to be its bottom was a layer of gas, with a deeper part of the ocean underneath. The exploration ship, piloted by Lori (Jessica McNamee) has been trapped and no one else has the experience r expertise to rescue it.

“You’re going to offer me a job,” Jonas says, “and I’m going to say no. You’re going to offer me money, and I’m going to say no. You’re going to appeal to my better nature and I’m still going to say no.” But they bypass all of that to skip to the ultimate persuader: Lori is his ex-wife.

So, back on the job after a quick check-up with the team doctor. Fortunately, five years of drinking have not had any adverse affect whatsoever, as we will later confirm when we see Jonas in nothing but a towel. After that, it’s pretty much one action/rescue/escape scene after another, which is fine because the parts in between are not very good. A tragic death is played as romantic foreplay. And a racist stereotype is played as — the same racist stereotype? If there’s an effort to go meta, it fails.

Here’s the good news — the action scenes, stunts, and digital effects are really well done! Director Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) stages them well, with a series of different settings and circumstances that actually feel now and then almost like a real story. Each one builds on the next with an additional layer of difficulty and a different balance of stakes. The audience did cheer when one character was eaten. and we never fear for a second that anything would happen to that child, but overall, there are enough characters and enough variations of threat and logistical complications to keep each one interesting.

It would be easy for this movie to slide into “Frankenfish vs. Dinocroc” SYFY territory, but Statham strikes the right tone and it is great to see Curtis, who always brings great humanity and authenticity to the story.

SPOILER ALERT: The cute dog does not die.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop peril, suspense, and violence, with characters injured and killed and some grisly and disturbing images. Characters sacrifice themselves to save others. The movie also includes some strong language and drinking to deal with stress and depression.

Family discussion: How do Toshi and Heller decide what they should do? Can we explore without disrupting the environment or putting people at risk?

If you like this, try: “Jaws”

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Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

Posted on July 12, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic, cartoon-style peril and violence, weapons, fire, attempted murder
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 13, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 8, 2018
Copyright 2018 Sony Pictures Animation

“You have to be carefully taught,” according to the Rodgers and Hammerstein song in “South Pacific.” Lt. Cable and Nelly Forbush sing ruefully about the prejudices drummed into them as children: “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate/You’ve got to be carefully taught.” That same sober theme is gently raised in the midst of the silliness and fun scares of this third in the animated “Hotel Transylvania” series about Drac, the doting-to-a-fault vampire dad voiced by Adam Sandler, his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), and her very mellow human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg).

In just about every other respect, it’s pretty much the same movie as the first two, with slightly less clever monster jokes than the first one and a slightly more appealing storyline than the second one. Basically, Adam Sandler gets to do his two favorite things: speak in a “funny” accent voice and be lazy, preferably in an exotic location (IRS, check to see if he deducted a cruise as a business expense in developing this one).

Drac is still over-involved in his daughter’s life, worrying way too much when you consider that it is very difficult to harm a vampire. In case we were not clear on that, it is spelled out for us in the movie’s opening flashback, set in 1897, where vampire killer Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) is trying to destroy Drac. But he is no match for a vampire with nimbleness, courage, and imperviousness to any threat but garlic or a stake through the heart. The original story’s third weapon against vampires, a crucifix, is omitted in favor of cartoon secularism, as is the ickiness of subsisting on blood, the inconvenience of sleeping in sunlight, or the problem of marriage between someone with a human life span and someone who never ages. Any concerns about those issues are for Twihards.

These are cute and cuddly monsters, including the Invisible Man (David Spade), Frankenstein and his bride (Kevin James and Fran Drescher), Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), and Mr. and Mrs. Wolfman (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon), with their dozens of wolf-babies. There’s nothing at all scary about them and they seem to spend all of their time hanging out with each other, first at the resort that gives the series its title and then at Mavis’ surprise vacation — a cruise ship with all the amenities. As Drac points out, that means it’s just his hotel except on a boat. There’s one other big difference, though. He’s not in charge, which is both worrying and a little bit relaxing as well. “You need a vacation from managing everyone else’s vacation,” Mavis tells him. And this will be a chance for them to have some quality time together as a family.

Drac insists that the cruise, headed for the Bermuda Triangle and the lost continent of Atlantis “is not the Love Boat.” But he is beginning to think he might be interesting in finding romance (the vampire term is “zing” for love at first sight), many years since the death of Mavis’ mother. He even tries to find someone he’d like to swipe right on on the monster version of Tinder, called Zinger. And then, he takes a look at the beautiful — and human — ship’s captain, Erika (Kathryn Hahn), and ZING.

There’s some “monsters gotta be monsters” stuff — “We’re here, we’re hairy, and it’s our right to be scary!” Though of course they’re not scary after all and as in the other films it is the humans and their unwillingness to look beyond the tentacles and fur to see that just like us, monsters love their families and don’t want to hurt anyone. There’s a lot of silly stuff, a cute dance number, some appealing if uninspired pop song selections (Bruno Mars, the Beach Boys, the ubiquitous Mr. Blue Sky), plus the one song no one can resist dancing to (I won’t spoil it, but the audience groans suggested no one was surprised). It turns out music does have charms to sooth the savage beast after all. And this movie has enough charm to soothe little savages on summer vacation for 90 minutes or so.

Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language, potty humor, peril and violence (including attempted murder of monsters and a character who is badly injured and ultimately almost entirely prosthetic).

Family discussion: Why did Van Helsing hate monsters? Which monster would you like to be and why?

If you like this, try: the first two films, Monster House, “Igor

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