Jumanji: The Next Level

Posted on December 14, 2019 at 9:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video game action style peril and violence, issue of terminal illness
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2019

Copyright 2019 Columbia
My review of Jumanji; The Next Level is on rogerebert.com — an excerpt:

Like its predecessor, this latest “Jumanji” movie combines fantasy action and adventure with some comedy, a touch of romance, and real-life lessons about courage, friendship, and empathy—all with the help of some low-key race and gender fluidity….Johnson was terrific as Spencer in the first film, a humorously exaggerated version of an adolescent discovering the power of adulthood. But as the outer version of Spencer’s cranky grandfather, he’s clearly having more fun. He barely notices the surreal concept of being trapped inside a video game (he does not appear to be entirely sure what a video game is), and is much too busy swiveling hips that for the first time in years have a full range of motion. Johnson/Bravestone as Spencer was something to aspire to, in a future that still seemed filled with infinite potential, but Johnson/Bravestone as Eddie is filled with the bucket list delight of someone who sees nothing but loss ahead. Hart is especially good at toning down his usual peppery energy as the avatar for the slow-talking Milo, whose avatar’s strength is languages but who retains his discursive style. Black and Awkwafina both have a chance to represent more than one of the human characters, making each one distinct and clever.

The fantasy of the avatars, with their assigned strengths and weaknesses, make it possible for the characters to become more honest with themselves and each other. As with the first film, the humor and excitement are nimbly balanced so it never gets too scary or silly, and the focus is more on friendship than romance. This time, there is a light touch of poignance as well that makes the message about friendship more meaningful. And like all good video games, there’s a hint of yet another level at the end for those, like me, who are not yet ready to say Game Over.

Parents should know that this film icludes video game-style peril, action, and adventure, some strong language, brief crude humor (references to eunuch character), and issues of aging and terminal illness.

Family discussion: If you were a game avatar, what would your strengths and weaknesses be? What did the characters learn from being different races and genders?

If you like this, try: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

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Trailer: Jane Austen’s Emma With Anna Taylor-Joy

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 10:26 am

I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s Emma (the novel she famously described as having a heroine no one would like) and the movie version with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Toni Collette. This new version, starring Anna Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Gemma Whelan, Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds, and Connor Swindells, looks just as delightful.

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Motherless Brooklyn

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019
Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers

“Motherless Brooklyn” is the affectionate (really) nickname given to Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) by the only person to treat him kindly, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel grew up in an orphanage where his odd tics and compulsions made him the target of bullies who called him a freak. Minna, a private detective, saw something in Lionel, saw that the same compulsions that others found jarring would make him valuable as a close observer who would not be able to rest until he solved the mystery. “A piece of my head broke off and keeps joyriding me for kicks,” he says. But”if there’s one thing my pain in the ass brain knows how to do it is how to listen and remember things.”

Writer/director/star Edward Norton adapted Jonathan Lethem’s prize-winning book, shifting its setting from the 1990’s to the 1950’s, with an intricate “Chinatown”-like storyline of betrayal, corruption, and money. Alec Baldwin plays Moses Randolph, a character clearly inspired by “master builder” Robert Moses, who remade the face, footprint, and culture of New York City. He was never elected to office but held as many as twelve titles in city government, overseeing the construction of highways, parks, and bridges. We first see Baldwin as Randolph striding into a meeting and contemptuously ordering the mayor to give him authority over pretty much everything. How this will all tie into the murder of Frank Minna is what Lionel will have to find out. And there’s a beautiful woman with a secret, as there always is in a noir story. Here is is Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), working to protect the people who are being displaced, with an unexpected additional connection to the story.

Norton’s narration and twitchy performance immerse us in what he sees and what he is looking for and the outstanding production design by Beth Mickle and superbly moody core by Daniel Pemberton immerse us in post WWII New York. We can almost smell the luxurious leather on the books and chairs in an office with a fabulous view of the city to the old Penn Station to a smoky jazz joint in a black neighborhood. And the murkiness of the settings and the sinuous, boundary-crossing music emphasize the ambiguities faced by the characters.

Unlike most stories distorted by power and corruption, Randolph is not lining his own pockets. He argues that he is doing what’s best for the city — building bridges that make it possible for employers to have access to people who live outside of Manhattan, parks and beaches to give residents something more than jobs to attract them. So, if he has to cut some corners, displace poor people, and bury some secrets and maybe a couple of bodies, isn’t that just what it takes to get things done? “As long as you’re the guy who built the parks, you’re with the angels.” At least to some people. Norton, whose grandfather was a developer with an excellent reputation for integrity and public spiritedness, is very aware of the conflicts involved in “gentrification” and choosing between protection and honoring the old and improving with the new, between an orderly process that gives everyone a chance to participate and a bureaucratic tangle that prevents any progress.

This has been a labor of love for Norton, who has worked on and off for 20 years to bring Lethem’s characters to the screen. In only his second film (after “Keeping the Faith”) as a director, he brings an assured understanding of structure and tone. In one especially compelling scene, Lionel finds that a jazz performance connects with the rhythms of his brain and we see what it is like for him to experience a sense of home. The story itself is like a jazz performance, improvisation based in deep understanding and skill.

Parents should know that this is a noir-esque murder mystery with extended peril and characters who are injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, bullying, strong language, drinking, smoking, drugs, and sexual references and a a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: How does Lionel turn his challenges into a strength? What matters most to Moses Randolph? Who is referred to with the quote from Shakespeare about using a giant’s strength like a tyrant?”

If you like this, try: “Chinatown” and classic noir films like “The Woman in the Window” and “Touch of Evil”

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Posted on October 17, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and brief scary images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, characters injured, cursed, and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
Come on, Disney. You can do better than this. “Mistress of Evil” makes Maleficent sound like she is hosting cheesy old horror movies on late night television. Maleficent, of course, is the wicked fairy from the classic animated Disney version of “Sleeping Beauty” who was so angry she wasn’t invited to Princess Aurora’s christening that she cursed her to eternal slumber after pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. She could only be awakened by true love’s kiss, and ultimate her fury is so great she turns into a fire-breathing dragon. All because she felt she should have been on the palace guest list.

On the 60th anniversary of that film’s release, we get this sequel to the 2014 “Maleficent,” with Angelina Jolie as a villain more sinned against than sinning. It turns out it was more than a social oversight that made her angry. She was a fairy cruelly betrayed by the human man she loved, who ruined her so he could become king (the severing of her wings was a deeply disturbing scene). Basically, she was Glenn Close from “Fatal Attraction” with horns and magical powers. Who needs to boil a bunny when you can just zap people?

But then she could not help loving the darling little Princess Aurora. The famously maternal Angelina Jolie — formerly the famously wild child Angelina Jolie — was well cast as the fairy whose anger was cooled by the love of a child. Everything ended up pretty close to happily ever after, but that doesn’t help the box office so here we are again.

Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now queen of the Moors, which is fairy territory, and everyone loves her, from little pixies to Groot-like tree creatures. She floats around in hippie chick finery, and everything is blossoms and butterflies, kind, and peaceful. She accepts a proposal from Prince Philip (now played by Harris Dickinson), son of the king and queen who rule over the neighboring human country. Like so many brides before her, she implores her family, meaning Maleficent, to behave at the meet-the-prospective-in-laws dinner. And like so many meet-the-prospective-inlaw dinners, it does not go as well as the young couple hoped. Maleficent feels insulted, she lashes out, the king (Robert Lindsay) collapses, Maleficent is blamed (after all, she does know how to curse people into perpetual sleep), Aurora feels betrayed. And so, the princess stays with her new family, and Maleficent is banned again.

This time is different, though, because Maleficent finds for the first time, her own community, with horned and winged creatures like herself, though none with her magical gifts. They are outcasts, living in a secret underground community. The film’s best moments are those that make the most of the fabulously inventive visual designers and effects crew, and the “It’s a Small World”-style tour of the many variations within this group will make audiences wish for a pause button.

Unfortunately, some of the rest of the film will make them wish for a fast-forward button, including some very oddly off-key moments that give the movie a disconcertingly inconsistent tone. “I see what you did there” is not a line that belongs in what is otherwise a straightforward fantasy, not a post-modern, air-quotes, meta-take. The title character is intended to be complex, but she is just inconsistent as well. Nearly as emaciated as Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker,” with sepulchral skin and red red lips over dainty white fangs, she has heightened cheekbones that could cut glass and make Jolie look like she ate a coat hanger.

And then there is the political overlay, with messages about welcoming immigrants. non-violence, and justice for minorities that are lovely thoughts but not conveyed with any special insight or depth. More attention is given to some nonsense about creating a powder that is instantly deadly to fae folk, which is then deployed in mass quantities, but to keep the PG rating the amount of carnage is left unclear. Michelle Pfeiffer is the most vital element of the film as Philip’s mother (and her gowns and jewels are stunning), but she is not given enough to work with in the messy script, over-plotted and under-written. That’s the real villain in this fairy tale.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/action peril and violence much more intense than a typical PG with some very disturbing images including dissolving magical creatures, betrayal by a parent, curses, and a very sad death.

Family discussion: Why did Boora and Conall disagree? How are the issues in the movie similar to conflicts in the news? Why did Conall say we should not use our anger? Why did Aurora ask Maleficent to cover her horns and why did she apologize?

If you like this, try: the first “Maleficent,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Stardust”

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The Laundromat

Posted on October 10, 2019 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexual content and disturbing images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Boat accident, electrical accident, murder characters killed, sad loss of spouse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios
The numbers are unimaginable. The vocabulary is mind-numbing — and intended to be so. One of the biggest financial scandals of all time is known as the Panama Papers, a global money laundering/tax evasion/corruption-concealing scheme involving some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people, including politicians and crooks. They hid their money in what are called “shell” corporations — shell as in “shell game,” where the pea is always under the shell you don’t pick. The interlocking network of these companies was revealed with the help of a still-undisclosed whistleblower thanks to the tireless work of a group of non-profit journalists who had to comb through millions of arcane legal documents to understand and explain it all.

Great journalistic coup. But unlike a simple straightforward fraud like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which was depicted in two different and very watchable film versions, starring Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Richard Dreyfuss, the Panama Papers mess was so big and complicated it seemed impossible to put into dramatic form. That was the challenge faced by journalist Jake Bernstein, who wrote the sober, meticulously detailed book, and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), who wrote the colorful, funny, and dramatic movie. Director Steven Soderbergh knows how to do a heist film following “Oceans 11” and “Logan Lucky,” and he wisely structures this as another story of clever thieves outwitting ordinary people. Except this time the people outwitting are not lovable underdogs and the people outwitted are us.

Our guide to this world is an irrepressible pair of lawyers played by Antonio Banderas (playing Ramón Fonseca) and Gary Oldman (as Jürgen Mossack). It is hard to say which is more charming, their impeccably bespoke suits, which get increasingly outrageous over the course of the film, or their cheerful frankness about their equally cheerful and highly lucrative lack of any shred of integrity or responsibility. The linked stories that illustrate different aspects of the scheme are introduced by Fonseca and Mossack who explain what is going on and tie the stories to “rules” that underly the legal and human realities that created this monster. They should have just quoted Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. Or, as one of them says, “The world does not want to be saved.”

“Think of them as fairy tales that actually happened,” they tell us. “They’re not just about us. They’re about you.” Their first rule: “The meek are screwed.”

And that is how we meet a nice lady named Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), devoted to her husband (James Cromwell). When the pilot of the tour boat ride they are on is distracted, there is an accident, it sinks, and her husband is killed. Ellen is devastated. And then she finds out that the tour boat’s insurance company will not pay, and then she finds out that it does not really exist. It exists on paper, but it is just a shell company used for money laundering, and it never pays out on claims. There are no claims officers, no offices. It’s a mail drop run by a man who gets paid $15 per signature for acting as representative for hundreds of shell companies.

We peek into other stories. A shakedown of a Chinese official does not go as planned. The literally shocking death of a low-lever functionary throws the whole system out of whack because she is — on paper — a director of 25,000 companies. And a betrayal leads to a brutal lesson in the value of values, which turns out to be less than we might hope.

It is briskly told, with a heightened, farcical tone that ends with not one smart twist, but two. Soderbergh knows how to entice us into paying attention, and entertain us until we are willing to think.

Parents should know that this movie concerns a real-life massive financial fraud, with many stories of betrayal and theft, peril, accidental death and murder, sexual references and non-explicit situations, personal and professional betrayal, drinking, drugs, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Who is in position to prevent this kind of abuse? What is the difference between privacy and secrecy?

If you like this, try: “The Big Short” and the books and documentary about the Panama Papers

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