Godzilla vs. Kong

Posted on March 29, 2021 at 11:35 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense fantasy monster violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2021
Copyright WB 2021

Ladies and gentlemen! In this corner, we have Godzilla, the atomic-era, skyscraper-sized reptile, destroyer of cities. And in the other corner, it’s King Kong, the skyscraper-sized mammoth gorilla. And no one needs to hear about anything else in this movie beyond the one question: Does King Kong throw a roundhouse punch that lands on Godzilla’s jaw like a guided missile? And the answer I am happy to say, is YES.

Also in the movie: a Titan gets sliced in two by a laser beam, another one rips a towering tree out of the ground and throws it like a javelin, a little girl communicates abstract concepts to a monster via telepathy and sign language, and some humans who say things like, “This is our only chance. We have to take it,” and “the gravitational inversion should be quite intense” and “That is the discovery of the millennium!”

As a refresher, “Titan” is the term for all of the gigantic monsters who have been living in massive underground locations that somehow have sunlight, air, and lots of lush vegetation and rivers. They have been “provoked” into coming into human world, as we’ve seen in the earlier Warner Brothers films, leading up to this Avengers/Justice League-style opportunity to see them all together.

In the earlier films, both Godzilla and Kong found humans who understood them. And they had “happy” endings, with Godzilla going back home after helping save the surface world for humans, and Kong at an isolated island-size sanctuary.

But happy endings don’t stay happy when there are audiences waiting for the next chapter. Godzilla returns and is not happy. Kong, it turns out, has been under observation in a “Truman Show”-style setting, except that unlike Truman he knew all about it, and has decided it’s time to do something different. He shatters the fake blue sky above the island. Scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is afraid to have him leave the island because the Titan world does not have room for two alphas; if he and Godzilla meet, there will be a battle, to which we say, duh, it’s the title of the movie and the reason we are sitting through the thin layer of exposition gives us a chance to catch our breath between special effects fights.

As happens more often than not, the real bad guy here is neither monster but the big, bad, corporation, headed by personification of greed and hubris Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir). What he cares about is power, in both senses of the word. AS has an idea he admits is crazy. “I love crazy ideas,” Simmons says. “They’ve made me rich.” AS says that if they can get Kong to lead them to the hollow tunnels where the Titans live, they can take him home and get access to the power source which I think will somehow restore the balance between humans and the Titans but to be honest, the details did not really matter to me or, I suspect to anyone else, including the people who wrote it.

Simmon’s daughter goes along to brag about the capacities of the flying machines her rich father paid for and to play the imperious spoiled girl/Veruca Salt role. You can all but hear her say, “I want it NOW!”

Meanwhile, Godzilla fan Millie Bobbie Brown and a friend join up with Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) a podcaster who is both paranoid and right in his suspicions about the Big Bad Corporation.

But, as I said, we’re here for the fight scenes, and there are some lulus, including a whole new monster I won’t spoil except to say it gives us the best of both worlds, “Captain America: Civil War” style, allowing for shifting loyalties and therefore different match-ups. Do we care that the “fringe physics” and veterinary science in the film are iffy at best? We do not. The only technology we care about is the CGI that makes that roundhouse punch land with a satisfying pow, and that is just right.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy/monster peril and violence with some gory and graphic images. Characters are injured and killed. There is brief strong language and a bathroom joke.

Family discussion: Why was it so difficult for the humans to agree on the best way to treat the Titans? Would you go along with Madison? Why did Simmons believe Lind? Why did Madison believe Bernie? What makes you decide to believe someone?

If you like this, try: “King Kong: Skull Island,” “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” and some of the more than two dozen earlier films, as well as the “Pacific Rim” films

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Raya and the Last Dragon

Posted on March 2, 2021 at 10:13 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some violence, action, and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, sword fights, martial arts, characters turned to stone
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 5, 2021

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is a gorgeously animated fairy tale with thrilling action, irresistible characters, a heartwarming message, and Disney’s magic touch to lift the hearts of all ages. It has the scope and grandeur of a Fellowship of the Ring-style quest. It has a heroine of great courage, humanity, and integrity. And it has Awkwafina, the most inspired Disney choice to voice a fantasy animated character since Robin Williams in “Aladdin.”

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a fiercely brave girl. Her adored father is Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). He guards a precious gem that protects his people from a wispy but toxic monsters called the Druun. They can lay waste to the land and turn people into stone.

Benja dreams of reuniting the five communities that were once one dragon-shaped land called Kumandra. Now the communities are separate, each named for a part of the dragon: Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang, and Heart, all at war with each other. Raya explains the history with the help of charming paper puppets that illustrate what happened when the dragons that always protected Kumandra were killed by the Druune, “A mindless plague that spreads like wildfire.” The last act of the last one, Sisu, was the creation of the magic gem.

Benja brings the leaders of the other communities together in the spirit of friendship and cooperation. But, as Raya says, “people being people,” they fight. Everyone else is turned to stone, but Benja saves Raya, and she goes off to find the last dragon so she can save her people and maybe even accomplish her father’s dream of a united country.

It goes very badly because of, well, people being people. The gem is shattered. The Druun return. And six years later, Raya is still looking for the last dragon.

This is one of the most purely beautiful films ever made by Disney, and that is as good as it gets. Each of the five lands and populations is distinctive, filled with inviting detail, and even the harshest and most intimidating landscapes are gorgeously imagined. Raya has been alone for six years, but after she finds the dragon she picks up some other characters as well, each one surprising and surprisingly endearing. The Infinity Stones-style structure, where Raya and her crew have to retrieve the pieces of the gem from the different lands provides a solid structure and forward momentum, and the smart script makes each mini-heist fresh and iterative, each building on the lessons of the last. Avoiding spoilers here to let you discover its pleasure on your own, I will just say that the dragon in the title has more than one persona, both equally adorable, but the second is especially well-designed and perfectly suited to Awkwafina’s literally off-beat vocal rhythms. Her comment about group projects where everyone gets the same grade even though everyone knows there’s that one member who did not do the work is a treat and a half.

In the final credits, we learn that this film was made by over 400 people working from their homes due to the pandemic. Whether that experience helped to shape the story or not, certainly the experience of the past year has made its themes of building trust and questioning our assumptions are even deeper and more meaningful. This is a wonderful film for children, but let’s face it, the ones who need to see it are the grown-ups.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence including characters turned to stone, martial arts and sword fights.

Family discussion: Why do humans have a hard time cooperating? Which of Sisu’s powers would you like to have? Where in Kumandra would you like to live? How do you know when to trust someone?

If you like this, try: “Brave,” “Moana,” and the original animated “Mulan

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The Marksman

Posted on January 13, 2021 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, violence, and some bloody images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scene in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, brutal murders, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 15, 2021

Copyright 2021 Voltage Pictures
I can’t help saying that “The Marksman,” the 2021 entry in the annual Liam Neeson action film we usually get to start the year, is no bullseye. Neeson is always watchable and the Mark Patten cinematography makes the most of the southwestern landscape. The shoot-outs are well-staged. But the screenplay by
Chris Charles, Danny Kravitz, and director Robert Lorenz is underwritten and predictable.

This is less the “Taken” or “Cold Pursuit”-style action thriller where we get to enjoy Neeson showing off his special skills than it is a Clint Eastwood-style cranky old guy movie, perhaps because Lorenz is Eastwood’s longtime producer. There’s even a pause where the two main characters watch “Hang ’em High,” a 1968 Eastwood film that was the first from Eastwood’s own production company. In “The Marksman,” Neeson plays an Eastwood-like character who rails against his fate: “I’m trying to understand how you can work your whole life, serve your country, pay your taxes” and end up with nothing.”

Neeson plays Jim a Marine vet turned rancher on the Arizona border. He sometimes finds Mexicans who have been injured illegally crossed the border, and he always calls the immigration authorities, where his stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick) is an official.

Wiped out by medical expenses, he is notified by a banker that his ranch is about to be auctioned in 90 days, but can be sold sooner if they get a good offer. The loan officer Jim knew — and who knew Jim — is no longer there at the bank. The fact that Jim’s late wife’s ashes are spread on the hill and that he is “no deadbeat,” does not mean he gets extra time. “You have yourself a good evening,” the banker says as he gets into his car.

Jim finds a Mexican mother and son who have sneaked through a hole in the border fence. He calls the authorities, but then cartel thugs led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) come after them and start shooting. Jim shoots back. “Sorry, Pancho, these illegals are mine.”

The boy’s uncle stole some money from the cartel. They killed him and now they want to send a message by killing his family. The boy’s mother is shot. As she is dying, she gives the boy a rosary and hands Jim a blood-soaked scrap of paper with an address in Chicago, where the boy’s relatives are. She asks Jim to promise to bring her son to them.

And so, Jim and Miguel (Jacob Perez) get on the road. Jim does not have a phone or GPS, so he buys a map, which an amused sales clerk lets him have at no charge. But the very high tech cartel thugs are able to trace him through his credit card. And so it is a cat-and-mouse road trip with the interactions, escapes, and confrontations you would expect. Which is the problem. This movie is so bereft of ideas that it telegraphs everything that is coming (I mean, the title makes sure we know what Neeson’s special skills are this time) and repeating too much of it.

I respect Neeson’s special skills. I just hope next time they include picking a better script.

Parents should know that this film is about a former Marine who tries to protect a young boy after his mother and uncle are murdered by members of a Mexican drug cartel. The film includes shoot-outs and fighting, with many injuries and deaths, including a parent and a dog, all witnessed by the boy. There is also some strong language and some drinking.

Family discussion: Why does Jim help Miguel? Why does he change his mind about helping Miguel? Why does he end things with Mauricio the way he does? Do you agree?

If you like this, try: “Let Him Go” with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane and “Taken” with Neeson

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Wonder Woman 1984

Posted on December 21, 2020 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and sequences of action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: March 30, 2021

Copyright 2020 Warner Brothers
You may wonder why Wonder Woman is not as wonder-ful this time around. Part of that is attributable to shrinking it from big-screen theatrical release to home screens. We feel that right away in the bravura opening sequence, a flashback with Diana Prince as a young girl competing with adult Amazonian women in an athletic event like the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course if it was also a triathlon. But the bigger problem is in the fundamentals, the storyline and characters.

The first Wonder Woman was exceptionally well-conceived and executed, a triumph for director Patty Jenkins after some lackluster films from DC Comics. The WWI setting added interest, especially seeing Diana’s response to learning about the world outside of her idyllic woman-only community of Amazonian warriors. The stakes were clear and compelling and the villain was genuinely scary.

This sequel, set in 1984 for no particularly compelling reason, has entertaining moments and fun action sequences but the stakes are not as visceral and the villains are not as interesting.

As a resident of the Washington DC area, I got a special kick out of the re-creation of the 1980’s look of Georgetown and some of the other locations and tried not to pay too much attention to the details they got wrong. I can promise you, no one who works at the Smithsonian would think of touching any of their artifacts without gloves and other protective equipment, much less letting anyone, even a major contributor who knows how to flirt, take one home. But that is what happens when an item with crystals ends up at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where Diana (Gal Gadot) is now working as an expert.

Now, I’m not asking for realism in a genre that includes radioactive spider bites and infinity stones, but ideally the McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is the story is about — the formula, the gold, the nuclear codes, whatever) has to be simple enough not to interfere with the plot but specific enough to make the threat interesting, and that means we have to understand a little bit about how it works, why it is important, and what it takes to defeat it. It’s more fairy tale than comic book, a wishing stone crystal thingy more like “be careful what you wish for” stories like The Monkey’s Paw (which gets a shout-out in the film) or King Midas’ power to turn all he touched to gold.

That’s not a very good McGuffin and the villains are disappointing, too. There is a guy who has informercials about how to be rich on television, Maxwell Lord played by guy-behind-the-Mandelorian-helmet Pedro Pascal, who wants, well, pretty much everything. Making him in the oil business is a nice 80’s touch. And there’s the mousy museum curator Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig), who wants to be just like Diana. The muddled elements of their storylines are reflected in an absurd flashback that is supposed to make us, what, feel sorry for him? Understand his “Cat’s in the Cradle” problem? And the Capra-esque conclusion is not the “we are the world” moment they hope for.

Then there’s Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. As you may remember, he died heroically in the first movie. So there’s a real “Bobby Ewing in the shower” moment (another 80’s reference?) to bring him back. I’m all for putting Chris Pine in every movie ever, but again, the way this happens is not thought all the way through and it is impossible not to feel uneasy about the way the characters overlook the real-world consequences of his return for so much of the storyline. I did get a kick out of having the guy do the trying on clothes montage, though, for once. And the post-credit appearance from a most-welcome addition to the cast.

Gadot is an enormously appealing screen presence but this storyline is not a good fit with her abilities as an actress or a movie star. This is a sadder, wiser Diana, more than 60 years after the first film, but at times she just seems emptier.

Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve seen a comic book movie, but I found it entertaining despite all of the narrative shortcomings. Just hoping the next chapter is more wonder-ful.

Parents should know that this movie has extended comic book/action-style peril and violence and a sad death.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Max spend more time with his son? Did Diana envy Barbara?

If you like this, try: “Wonder Woman” and the DC Comics. Adult fans will enjoy Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, about the remarkable story of the man who created the character.

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Mulan (Live Action 2020)

Posted on September 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended battle sequences, fights, swords, explosions, falling
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020
Copyright Disney 2020

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is closer to director Niki Caro’s touching, both mythic and intimate “Whale Rider” than it is to the animated musical with Eddie Murphy as a quippy little dragon and Donny Osmond as a Chinese warrior.

Coming to us on DisneyPLus (for an extra $30) due to the pandemic, it gives us just a fraction — literally — of the grand vistas and meticulous framing Caro uses so beautifully in the film. This version of the classic story of a young woman who pretends to be male to join the military and saves the day with a brilliant strategic maneuver is more sober, ambitious, and grand in scope than the first version. Note that some of the characters and names are changed to further remove it from the original. And it is the first of the Disney live-action remakes of animated classics to get a PG-13 rating.

The movie recalls “Frozen” at the beginning, with two sisters, one with some special, almost magical skills. The young Mulan (Crystal Rao) shows determination and remarkable agility and skill as she chases down a runaway chicken with parkour-style acrobatics. Her father (Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou), is proud of the “qi” (life force) in her. But her mother knows that in their world the responsibility of the women is to attract a propitious husband. That does not require strong q. It is about modesty, decorum, and silence, almost the ability to disappear except when needed. Even Mulan’s father tells her that it is time to hide her qi so she can bring honor to the family.

Invaders come to China, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), with the help of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li). Every family has to supply a warrior for the military. To protect her father, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a young man and joins up with the soldiers who are in training. She quickly volunteers to cover night watch to avoid the group showers. And she begins to prove herself with skill and determination.

Then comes the battle, the revelation of her true identity, and then another chance to save the day when she realizes that Bori plans to attack the emperor (Jet Li).

Director of Photography Mandy Walker shows us breathtaking vistas (New Zealand standing in for China in much of the film) and stunningly staged battles. The scenes in Mulan’s village are colorful but gritty enough to be authentically rural. And the production design is everything we expect from Disney, meticulously researched and gorgeously imagined.

The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential qi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. They are on opposite sides, but they recognize all they have in common. As in the original film, we see the literal constrictions and distortions in the clothing and makeup Mulan must put on to meet with the matchmaker. She is far more comfortable in the armor of a warrior.

Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her qi.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with battle scenes, swords, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is chi and how do you access it? Why did the matchmaker and the warriors have such limited ideas about women?

If you like this, try; the original “Mulan” and live-action remakes “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” along with Chinese films for older audiences like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

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