Mortal Engines

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:37 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense fantasy/action peril and violence, bombs, explosions, knives, many characters injured and killed including parents, some grisly images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
Well, it looks amazing. Producer Peter Jackson has brought the same artistic vision to “Mortal Engines” that he did to the “Lord of the Rings” films. But this time the visual splendor is just too sharp a contrast with a story that is a long, long way from the deeply imagined world of Tolkien. It is based on a seven (so far) series of books by Philip Reeve about a post-apocalyptic world in which cities roll around on enormous, ravenous monster steampunk vehicles. The vehicles are pretty cool. The story is not. It’s just another derivative post-apocalyptic story about utter catastrophe and corruption, where the only hope is a small group of hot teenagers, a lesser “Hunger Games/Divergent/Maze Runner/Ender’s Game” knock-off, with a touch of “Battlefield Earth,” “Terminator,” and even a hint of the original “Star Wars” trilogy (now episodes IV and V).

We’re informed at the beginning that it took just an hour to destroy life as we know it, literally, geographically remaking the map of the world, with super-weapons that shattered the surface of the planet. Humanity has reverted to survival of the fittest, which means that there is only a very thin veneer of any kind of social structure beyond “might makes right.” London is might, and in the opening scene we see the London literal ship of state take over a smaller city/vehicle absorbing its resources, including its residents, who are “welcomed” by being turned into slave labor.

That thin veneer includes some superficial trappings of the civilization that preceded it, including “historians” who operate a “museum,” where they try to parse the meaning of the shards of 21st century life, especially the technology as it appears written records did not survive. But we will learn that the real reason for this supposed interest in the past is to get access to the very same weapons that caused the disaster. Santayana said that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. In this case, the only history that is studied is by those who intend to repeat it.

The real star of the film is production designer Dan Hennah. The machinery is wonderfully intricate and detailed. The settings are so gorgeously done that they just point up the under-imagined quality of the script, which is basically: A rebel girl with a scar on her face (Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw) and a “historian” from the museum (Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy) are on the run from the evil Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), who killed Hester’s mother and tried to kill Tom. He is the one whose interest in the museum’s artifacts was just a cover for tracking down all the missing pieces to reconstruct the big blaster, but he has a nice blonde daughter named Katherine (Leila George) who gets to find out that her father has been lying to her about pretty much everything. Hester and Tom are also on the run from a Terminator-type cyborg/zombie who was once a man but is now a single-minded killing machine (Stephen Lang, warming up for “Avatar” sequels or maybe cooling down from them.

Some books are fine as they are. Some are untranslatable to the screen, and some, like this one, should stay between the covers because bringing them to life only shows how lifeless they are.

Parents should  know that this movie includes intense and sometimes graphic peril and violence, murder, explosions, knives, guns, bombs, characters injured and killed including parents, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: Why did Valentine pretend to love history? How were knowledge and ignorance of history both used by different characters?

If you like this, try: “The Maze Runner” and “City of Ember”

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:10 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony Animation
The best surprise I got at a movie theater this year was “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” the all-around terrific new animated film that perhaps more than any superhero movie I’ve seen translates the jubilant experience of comic books to the screen. It has excitement, it has heart, it has humor, and it has a deep understanding of comics, comic culture, and Spidey himself. I was not excited about seeing yet another radioactive spider bite story, but this wildly imaginative film completely won me over and I can’t wait to see it again.

Just a bit of context: One fascinating element of comic books is that unlike any other story-telling in human history, they portray characters over decades, nearly a century in some cases, with different writers and artists telling their stories and alternative takes like “imaginary stories” with no canonic or precedential import. So, for example, Superman (and Clark Kent) began during the Depression, lived through WWII, the Cold War, the tumult of the 60’s, the yuppie years of the 80’s, went from being a newspaperman to a TV reporter to a blogger, has died and been brought back, has died and been replaced by an alternate version, and has been the subject of several television shows, movies, and even a Broadway musical from the people who brought another comic character to life in “Annie.”

Spider-Man has had one of the most successful superhero movie translations with three starring Tobey Maguire (the terrible third one is tweaked in this film), two with Andrew Garfield, and now another one plus the Avengers movies with Tom Holland. Throughout all of them, he has been the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” the teenager from Queens who lives with his elderly Aunt May, has a crush on Mary Jane, gets bitten by a radioactive spider, and learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Spidey is at the heart of Marvel’s re-imagining of the superhero as young, irreverent, still learning, living in a real place rather than an imagined Gotham or Metropolis, and dealing with real-life problems as well as super-villains. Memorably, he once got paid by check but could not cash it because he had no Spider-Man ID. There are a bunch of alternate versions of Spider-Man, and we get to see many of them work together in this film.

We don’t need to go into the mumbo-jumbo here, do we? Let’s just agree that multiple universes exist and that it is possible that every action or incident splinters off another alternate timeline so that if we could just find a way to hop from one to another, we could find the one where, say, Hitler never assumed power in Germany or where the government regulated sub-prime derivatives and prevented the financial meltdown of 2008. A mob boss in New York known as Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) wants to find the parallel universe, not, for once a super-villain who wants total world domination but because he wants to find the world where his wife was not killed. But his efforts open up portals to other Spider-Men (and a Spider-pig and Spider-girls) who get catapulted into this universe just as our Spidey (Chris Pine) dies (!!!), telling the newest radioactive spider-bite victim, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) that he has to carry on.

Miles can’t even manage carrying on his regular life. He’s the son of a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) who considers Spider-Man a lawless disruption and a Puerto Rican nurse mother (Luna Lauren Velez). Miles is under a lot of pressure because has just started at a new magnet school for gifted kids and because he knows his parents would not approve of the time he spends with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) tagging walls with graffiti.

The style of contemporary animation is usually hyper-reality, with every hair on every head moving and shining just as it does in real life. The style of this film is exuberantly stylized, comic-book style, and it is thrilling to see it translated to screen so skillfully. The interactions with the variations of Spidey are clever and exciting and the movie is serious about its world and its story and characters, but never about itself, which is very comic book-y, too. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the happiest surprise of this season, a gift that will tingle Spidey-senses in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and action/comic-book style violence, with characters injured and killed (it would be a PG-13 if live action), and some brief schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which version of Spider-Man do you like best and why? What do you imagine would be your parallel in an alternate universe?

If you like this, try: the live action Spider-Man movies and the comic books

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Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Posted on November 29, 2018 at 5:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence including bloody images, and some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril from animals and human hunter, characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 30, 2018
Copyright Netflix 2018

“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is not the “Bear Necessities” Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s story about the boy raised by wolves and befriended by a cuddly bear and an elegant panther. This is more like Tennyson’s vision of nature as red in tooth and claw. Andy Serkis, master of the art of motion capture acting, has directed this much darker version of the story, with simultaneous release this week in theaters and on Netflix. The motion capture performances are striking. Parents need to know, however, although this is the story of a young boy befriended by talking animals, this is not for young children or for the faint of heart of any age.

Serkis brought along some of his “Hobbit” co-stars, and the movie opens with an introduction from Kaa the snake, voiced by Cate Blanchett telling us that the jungle traditions are being challenged, presumably from the incursion of humans. When a couple are killed by the tiger Shere Kahn (Benedict Cumberbatch), a baby is abandoned. The death of the parents is off-camera, discreetly shown by an overturned, single shoe. But the baby is smeared with blood. Like Harry Potter, he is the Boy Who Lived, and he is special.

A wolf pack wants to adopt the boy they call Mowgli, and that means a meeting of the council of animals. It is agreed that he can stay and we will learn that is only in part because it is in the nature of the wolf mother to feel tenderness toward a helpless baby of any species. While some of the animals fear that keeping Mowgli will bring man into the jungle looking for him, others think that he will help keep them safe from humans. And all of them know that Shere Kahn will be back for Mowgli, and that it will take the full force of the pack to keep him safe.

Mowgli grows up (Rohan Chan), very much at home in the jungle, though painfully aware that he does not have the natural abilities of his wolf brothers. They are being coached by Baloo the bear (Serkis) to pass a racing test to qualify them to become full members of the pack. Mowgli cannot keep up with them if he races on all fours, as they do.

The motion capture work is excellent, as expected from Serkis and the images and camera work are striking, worth seeing on a big screen. But the storyline never fully escapes its colonialist origins. There’s a reason we refer to “the law of the jungle” and no simple way to make that into a workable metaphor about the human world. Think of “The Lion King,” for example (with a live-action version coming next year). It’s fine to sing about the circle of life if you’re at the top of the food chain. Bagheera the panther (Christian Bale) explains to Mowgli that animals who kill must look their prey in the eye as they are dying “so that the soul does not depart alone.” Not much comfort to the departing soul. Mowgli finds appropriate ambivalence in the human world, where the native community has brought in a white hunter (Matthew Rhys) who is kind to Mowgli but will never appreciate the animals like the boy who lived with them. Like the boy himself, the movie is not able to resolve its conflicting dualities.

Parents should know that this film includes animal and human peril and violence, with characters injured and killed, some disturbing and graphic images, guns, fire, animal attacks, sad death of parents (off-screen), drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: How are the wolves different from the other animals? What kinds of tests do humans try to pass? Do you agree with Mowgli’s choice about where to live?

If you like this, try: Disney’s animated and live-action “Jungle Book” movies

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Robin Hood

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:45 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and action-style peril and violence, arrows, fire, knives, beheading, references to torture, horrific child abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018

Copyright 2018 Lionsgate
There have been so so so so so many Robin Hoods over the years and a couple of them are as good as movies get, starting with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Eugene Pallette as Robin, Marian, Gisbourne, Prince John, and Friar Tuck. Then there’s the Disney animated version with music by Roger Miller, and the parody version from Mel Brooks with Robin played by “The Princess Bride’s” Cary Elwes. We’ve also had genuinely terrible Robin Hoods, perhaps most regrettably Kevin Costner with a California accent. And now we have the international co-production version, clearly geared to the non-US market, with clunky, exposition-weighted dialogue, a drumbeat-heavy score and action sequences juiced with bullet-time and slo-mo. Can’t we talk about the Errol Flynn version instead? Directed by the guy who did “Casablanaca?” With one of the all-time best movie scores, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold? No? Sigh. Well, all right.

This time, Robin is played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton, best known for the “Kingsmen” movies and “Eddie the Eagle.” This is not his fault. He is a fine actor and can handle action scenes and love scenes capably. It is also not the fault of Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and F. Murray Abraham, who do their best. Possibly, it is not the fault of Leonardo diCaprio, who shows up in the credits as producer. It is most likely this big, dumb movie is the fault of the big, dumb ways that movies get made these days. The more they cost, the more dumbed-down they have to be to make money overseas, and this one apparently cost a lot.

We’re there because the story of the dashing nobleman who stole from the rich to give to the poor and was the world’s greatest archer and hundreds of years later is still a symbol of gallantry and heroism. But this movie begins by telling us to forget everything we think we know about the story and many of its most familiar and beloved elements are missing. No archery contest, no ransom for the king, no plotting Prince John. Which would be fine if what it has instead was of equal interest, but it really isn’t. It’s just a first-person shooter game with live action.

In this version, as in most others, Robin of Loxley is a nobleman. As he tells us in the opening narration, his story begins with a thief but it is not him. He discovers a veiled young woman (Eve Hewson as Marian) stealing one of his horses. Moved by her pluck, her generosity (it is for a poor member of the community) and her lovely blue eyes, he allows her to take the horse and soon, well, let Robin tell you himself: “They were young and in love until the cold hand of fate reached out.” See what I mean? Robin is drafted to fight in the Crusades, where the British have arrows and the “infidels” have a sort of gatling gun for arrows. Robin is wounded trying to save the son of the captured “infidel” who tried to kill him. Robin objects to murdering prisoners. He is sent back to England, where he finds that both his home and Marian are gone. His home has been taken by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) and Marian, who was told that he had been killed, is now with Will (Jamie Dornan). Furthermore, the man whose son he tried to save stowed away on the boat to devote his life to vengeance. The English version of his name is John, and he wants to help Robin fight the people responsible for his son’s death. Cue the training montage. And the beating drums.

It’s not that it’s dumb. It’s that it is so much dumber than it needed to be. I do not expect the characters to speak the way people did in the 12th century, but Robin should not be asking someone “You okay?” of “I want to go big.” It isn’t just the drumbeats that are headache-inducing. It is the clunkiness of the expository dialogue, hammering contemporary parallels like the Sheriff’s “They hate us, our freedom, our culture, our religion.” I expected him to talk about sending troops to stop the caravans. “This thief is making you look like a damned fool!” That’s the kind of writing Mel Brooks wrote a whole movie to make fun of. I don’t know what’s worse, the dumb slang or the dumb pretentious/portentous pronouncements:”Fear is the greatest weapon in the church’s arsenal. It is why the church created Hell.”

It’s too loud, too long, and too dumb. What they’re stealing here is our money, our time, and our goodwill.

Parents should know that this film has pervasive near-R peril and violence with battle scenes, arrows, fire, explosions, chases, knives, beheading (offscreen) and many characters injured and killed, and brief strong language, and references to horrific child abuse and torture.

Family discussion: Why was Robin different from the other lords? What issues in this movie are still important today?

If you like this, try: “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”

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Hunter Killer

Posted on October 25, 2018 at 5:44 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive military action, peril, and violence, guns, explosions, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 26, 2018

Copyright 2018 Summit Premiere
Submarines provide instant drama because they are as closed off from the rest of the world as it is possible to be in the era of instant global communications. The officers have to make life and death decisions not only for themselves but sometimes for the whole world with limited information and ability to get orders from their commanders. They are stuck with each other in a setting that combines the maximum of isolation with the highest of stakes. That is why there are so many memorable submarine movies, from “The Hunt for Red October” to “Crimson Tide” to “U-571,” “Das Boot,” and even “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” There are also often fascinating details about the technology involved. And that is why Gerard Butler‘s latest movie about saving yet another world leader from personal and geopolitical catastrophe holds our interest, despite the preposterousness of the plot.

The president of Russia has been kidnapped in a coup, and according to this film the only chance of rescue is up to the US Navy Seals and the captain of a US Navy submarine. If you can get on board with that idea, the mechanics and action should keep you on board through the end.

Butler plays Captain Joe Glass and we know he is a good guy because we first see him about to shoot a deer with a very manly bow and arrow but then decide not to when he sees the deer’s sweet mate and their baby. We see he is scrappy and tough but fair as he introduces himself to his new crew. He explains that he is not one of those fancy-pants Annapolis grads who learned what they do in a classroom. He’s an up-from-the bottom scrapper who will demand the best because he has had their jobs and knows what is possible.

It is really three movies in one as four Navy Seals enter Russia, first to get intel, and then, after their cameras reveal the coup, to rescue the kidnapped Russian president, the top brass in the Pentagon, including a skeptic (Gary Oldman), an intelligence officer (Linda Cardellini), and the decent guy trying to hold it together (Common), and then the attack sub led by Captain Glass. The other name for an attack submarine is hunter-killer.

The action scenes are powerfully staged, with outstanding sound and visual effects. And the film skillfully balances the big booms with the small moments between the (mostly) men. The film’s most compelling scene is when Glass has to find a way to gain the trust of a Russian captain (the late Michael Nyqvist, showing canny grizzled wisdom) very quickly and the two men recognize that they have more in common with each other than they ever will with the guys back home giving them orders based on politics and computer screens. Toby Stephens is also excellent as the leader of the Navy Seals.

There’s a lot of tech talk and tough talk and thousand yard stares. But there’s also some impressive action and a storyline that, let’s face it, is no more outlandish than current headlines and much more satisfying.

Parents should know that this film includes extended military peril and violence, guns, bombs, explosions, kidnapping, political coup, characters injured and killed, a brief crude reference, and strong language.

Family discussion: What difference did it make that Captain Glass had served as a crewman? What made the Russian and American captains trust each other?

If you like this, try: “Under Siege” and “The Hunt for Red October”

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