The Bad Guys

Posted on April 21, 2022 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated.PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon action-style law enforcement peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 22, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
“The Bad Guys,” based on the popular series of graphic novels by Aaron Blabey, is an adorable animated film about guys who are not as bad as they think. They are seen as the scariest animals on earth, but even when they are committing crimes, they do not realize that they have good qualities, too. They are loyal friends, for example, and honest some of the time. We first see Wolf (Sam Rockwell) and Snake (Mark Maron) in a diner, where Wolf not only celebrates Snake’s birthday but even when there’s no one to pay for the meal, they make sure to pay for it anyway.

And then they rob the bank across the street. Okay, they’re bad. That could be, though, because they are just behaving the way people expect. Wolves, sharks, snakes, tarantulas, and piranhas have bad reputations. So they’re just living up or rather down to what the humans around them expect.

Adults watching with their children may notice the resemblance to some very adults-only movies, the first scene a tip of the cinematic chapeau to “Pulp Fiction,” not just the diner setting but the rhythm of the dialogue and the editing. Like the “Sesame Street” versions of adult content, it is there to entertain the grown-ups, but it is also there because even toned-down, it is fun to watch.

“The Bad Guys” has the fun of another genre kids do not often see, the heist film, with all kinds of problem-solving, setbacks, and teamwork. In addition to Wolf, the cool, Danny Ocean planner-type, and Snake, an escape artist, the gang also includes, of course, a tech whiz, Awkwafina as Tarantula, and eight legs come in very handy working on keyboards. Shark (Craig Robinson) is the master of disguise. And Piranha (Anthony Ramos) is the muscle. (The movie characters wisely have more diversity than the books.) The voice talent is superb. Not all actors can do voice work. It makes sense; they’re used to being able to rely on their faces and bodies to express emotion. But Sam Rockwell gives one of his all-time best performances as Wolf, perfectly matching the cool sophistication of the character and his moments of doubt and vulnerability. The animation is outstanding, stylish and dynamic when it needs to be, touches of anime, especially with the police officer voiced by Alex Borstein, and a bit of a hand-drawn feel to prevent CGI over-perfection.

There are some fun surprises and twists along the way and of course some lessons on the satisfactions of being a good guy. But not too good; we want to leave room for some sequels.

Parents should know that while it is all done with humor, this is a movie about characters who commit crimes, mostly theft. There are some chases and some cartoon-style peril and a mind-control machine, but no one gets hurt. The movie also includes some rude humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What makes someone bad or good? Why is it hard for the bad guys to consider others’ rights and feelings? Which is your favorite bad guy character and why?

If you like this, try: the book and its sequels and “Zootopia”

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Death on the Nile

Posted on February 10, 2022 at 5:39 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Murders, gun
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 11, 2022
Date Released to DVD: April 4, 2022
Copyright 20th Century 2021

Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about a murder in Egypt has been sumptuously brought to screen by Sir Kenneth Branagh, who directed and stars as super-sleuth Hercule Poirot. (It was previously filmed with Peter Ustinov in 2009.)

For this version of “Death on the Nile,” Branagh worked again with his outstanding “Belfast” cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and production designer Jim Clay, and their work here is never less than breathtakingly exquisite, matched by the fabulous costumes designed by Paco Delgado and JobanJit Singh, worn by some of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. It is beautiful to look at, and to listen to, with a superb soundtrack that includes sultry songs by a nightclub performer (Sophie Okonedo, the highlight of the film). But as with Branagh’s previous Poirot film, there are some confounding choices that distract us from the reason we’re there, which is to have just enough information and almost enough emotional involvement to enjoy the puzzle. For some inexplicable reason, Branagh and his screenwriter, Michael Green (“Logan”) think that we need to understand Poirot’s backstory, which Dame Agatha knew very well we did not. In 33 books, 2 plays, and more than 50 short stories, she wisely never told us more about Poirot than that he was proud of his “little gray cells,” his Belgian heritage (he is often mistaken for French), and his impressive mustache and that he sometimes spoke of retiring to plant vegetable marrows. This film begins with an un-Christie, un-canon flashback to Poirot’s WWI combat experience, and it (and the coda at the end) add nothing to the story.

The story has more than enough love, betrayal, melodrama, and yes, murder to fill a movie. In fact, to my recollection, it adds at least one murder to the Christie original for, again, no particular reason. This is a darker story than “Murder on the Orient Express,” but the tone of the film, and even the stunning images (people and settings) are off-kilter with the carnage of the story. There’s a reason that the stories by Christie and her imitators are called “cozies.” Unlike noir mysteries, they are comparatively neat and civilized. Noir is rotgut whiskey and bathtub gin. Cozies are afternoon tea with lemon curd and clotted cream.

It begins (after we get the flashback out of the way) with two devoted friends, both beautiful, high-spirited young women. Jacqueline (Emma Mackey) is poor and Linnet (Gal Gadot) is very wealthy. Jacqueline tells Linnet she is madly in love with Simon (Armie Hammer) but they need money to get married. Linnet immediately offers her whatever she needs as a wedding gift, but Jacqueline says that what she wants is a job for her fiancé. If Linnet will hire him as her estate manager, that’s all they need. Linnet agrees, Simon asks her to dance to celebrate and…in the next scene, it is Simon and Linnet who are married, celebrating in Egypt. Jacqueline, almost mad with jealousy, has followed them. To feel safe, Linnet invites a group to take a boat to see the famous tomb at Abu Simbal and other sights along the Nile. She tells Poirot that having money means it is impossible to trust anyone.

The other passengers include the blues singer and her accompanist/manager niece (Letitia Wright of “The Black Panther”), Poirot’s handsome young friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, returning in the same role he played in “Murder on the Orient Express”) and his protective mother (Annette Bening), two middle-aged British ladies (underused Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), Linnet’s lawyer (Ali Fazal) and doctor (a sincere, melancholy, toned-down Russell Brand). Jacqueline joins the group as well. When someone is murdered, it turns out that many of the passengers may have had motive and/or opportunity. Poirot will have to ask questions and ultimately gather all of the surviving group in one room to tell them which of them is guilty.

Where will the next Branagh/Christie all-star mystery take place? Following a train and a boat, which conveniently limit inquiries to the people on board. Maybe an airplane? A submarine? Despite its shortcomings, I’ll be along for the ride.

Parents should know that this is a murder mystery with some grisly and disturbing images. There are also sexual references and characters use some strong language and drink alcohol.

Family discussion: Which clues did you miss? How do the songs relate to the story and characters?

If you like this, try: the original “Murder on the Orient Express,” “10 Little Indians,” and more Christie-based movies and television series as well as her books.

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The Tiger Rising

Posted on January 17, 2022 at 5:46 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, language and brief violence
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Adult and school-age bullies, sad death of parent, fist-fight, animal shot and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 21, 2022

Copyright The Avenue 2021
Imagine the enchantment of this invitation from one lonely, sad, 10-year-old to another: “I know where there’s a tiger.” And imagine the thrill of this observation to someone whose creations have not been noticed: “You are an artist.”

“The Tiger Rising” is based on the best-selling book by Kate DiCamillo, who has called it her most autobiographical book, inspired by her childhood in Florida. In it, a boy who tries to keep his feelings inside meets a girl who pushes a lot of angry feelings out so that she does not have to admit how scared and sad she is.

The boy who discovers a caged tiger in the woods is Rob Horton (Christian Convery), who lives in a run-down motel with his father, following the devastating loss of his mother. Flashbacks show how close they were and how much she supported his gifts as an artist. He is bullied at school and the only person he has to talk to is the motel maid, Willie May (Queen Latifah, who also was a producer on the film).

Rob has developed an itchy, stress-related skin condition and the principal has sent him home until it clears up. As he goes for a walk in the wooded area across from the motel, a raindrop falls on his cheek, reminding him that when he cried at his mother’s funeral he father was harsh: “There’s no point in crying. It ain’t going to bring her back.” Rob Sr. (“True Blood’s” Sam Trammel) is struggling, working as a handyman in exchange for their room at the motel, still grieving himself and ashamed of not doing a better jog of caring for his son. And he is dealing with his own bully, the motel’s owner, Beauchamp (Dennis Quaid). So Rob and his father barely speak to each other.

There is a new girl in Rob’s class at school. Her name is Sistine, “like the chapel.” And she is played by the terrific Madalen Mills of “Jingle Jangle,” perfect for the lively, outspoken Sistine, who has no problem verbally or physically confronting bullies or telling other people what to do. She insists that she will only be in Florida for a few weeks because her father will be coming to get her. Like Rob, she has found herself alone with the parent she was less close to, and her bluster is not as effective at hiding her fear and sadness as she wants it to be.

The tiger belongs to Beauchamp, and he hires Rob to feed it, warning him not to tell anyone. But Rob brings Sistine to see it, and she is immediately determined to set it free. Rob is not so sure.

Writer/director Ray Giarratana has a background in special effects on films like “The Life Aquatic” and “John Wick 3,” and the effects here are exceptionally well done, from the tiger, magnificent in fur and muscle and movement to the subtle animation of Rob’s drawing. It lends a touch of magic that both softens some of the harsher material and helps keep us inside the children’s point of view. Thought their eyes we see that sad and scary things happen. But being honest and finding a way to help each other is what keeps us going.

Parents should know that this movie includes a very sad death of one parent and a description of another parent leaving after and affair. There are adult and child bullies with some schoolyard and rude language. Characters fight and an animal is killed with a gun.

Family discussion: What would you do about the tiger? Why does Sistine call Willie May a prophetess?

If you like this, try: “Hoot,” “The Water Man,” and “A Dolphin Tale”

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American Underdog

Posted on December 18, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to child abuse and injury, tragic death of parents, family conflicts
Diversity Issues: Disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021

Anna Paquin as Brenda Warner and Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner in American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. Photo Credit: Michael Kubeisy
Kurt Warner dreamed big. He tells us that from the time he was a young boy watching Joe Montana on television, he wanted to be an MVP quarterback in a team that won the Super Bowl. Perhaps as much of a long shot, when he was in college he fell in love with Brenda, a divorced mother of two children, one disabled, and decided he was going to make a life and a family with her. Sometimes life is even cornier than the movies, and then they go ahead and make a movie about it anyway.

If there was ever a story to show that the difference between winners and quitters is that winners keep going just one day longer, it is the story of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, who was not even drafted into the NFL after college. Even after the only job he could get was stocking the shelves of a big box store, he did not give up on his dream. He did become a Super Bowl MVP quarterback, and he did make a life with Brenda. And now he and Brenda have produced this movie about what happens when you don’t give up.

Okay, so it is corny, but sometimes corny is fine. So, yes, there will be a rousing locker-room pep talk (though perhaps not from the person you might guess), and yes, people will say things like, “If this is your dream, you have to fight for it,” and “By all accounts, my dream, my story, is impossible,” and “It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have someone to share it with.” Of course they will, because those things are true. It helps a lot when the talents in front of the camera are MVPs, too, “Shazam’s” Zachary Levi as Kurt and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin as Brenda, with a fourth quarter appearance by Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil, who had his own roundabout career path and thus was especially understanding. Levi is an immediately likable presence and he makes Kurt’s dream aspirational, not arrogant or selfish. Paquin brings strength and vulnerability to Brenda, showing us her fear of opening up her heart after a painful divorce and the essential support she gets from her faith in God. They keep us rooting for Kurt because it is clear his dream is based on giving the best of what he has. With any luck, this movie will do for some in the audience what Joe Montana did for Kurt, and inspire another generation to dream big and refuse to quit.

Parents should know that this movie includes some mild language, references to child abuse, and tragic deaths of parents.

Family discussion: What makes sports stories so inspiring? Why did Kurt join the Arena league and what did he learn there? What did Brenda learn from Kurt’s response to Zach? What is your most impossible dream?

If you like this, try: “The Engine” and “Rudy”

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The Tender Bar

Posted on December 16, 2021 at 3:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of alcohol, scenes in a bar, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021
Copyright Amazon Studios 2021

JR Moehringer’s bittersweet memoir has been turned into a tender movie by director George Clooney. Moehringer wrote about growing up with his single mother in a ramshackle house with a mostly loving but dysfunctional extended family, learning his most important lessons about life and manhood from his bartender uncle Charlie and the regulars at the Long Island bar, improbably named after Charles Dickens.

Ben Affleck reminds us of how good he can be with a subtle, understated performance as Uncle Charlie that conveys a great deal about the character with honestly and understanding. JR (played as a child by Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (a terrific Lily Rabe) drive up to her parents home with a sense of resignation, if not defeat. She and her siblings cannot seem to get away from the house where they grew up. JR’s dad is a radio announcer and disc jockey. He has no contact with his former wife and son and JR thinks of him as just a voice.

JR’s grandfather is grumpy and often harsh. Uncle Charlie has his own issues, but he is there for JR, encouraging in their conversations and giving him an example of a man who can be relied on. His scenes are by far the highlight of the film, which goes astray after JR achieves his mother’s most important goal and is admitted to Yale. The movie spends too much time on his first romance, which like many first heartbreaks, is not as life-defining as JR (both the character and the writer) think it is.

Affleck shines here, perhaps because he does not have to be a leading man who carries the film or his comfort in being directed by his friend George Clooney, perhaps because his best scenes are with a child, and, like his character, we can see how much of what he does is in support of his young scene partner. Clooney skillfully creates JR’s world so that we can see it as adults and also understand how the young JR sees it as well. Like the bar of the title, the film is an oasis of honesty and kindness.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and some crude sexual references and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: What were the most important lessons JR learned from his uncle? Who are your biggest influences outside your immediate family?

If you like this, try: the book and Mary Carr’s The Liar’s Club and the Diane Keaton-directed “Unstrung Heroes.”

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