Mary Poppins Returns

Posted on December 18, 2018 at 10:25 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action
Profanity: Mild language in a song
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, references to sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 19, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Walt Disney
If I may borrow from the original “Mary Poppins movie” for a moment, the new sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a very jolly holiday with Mary indeed. Inspired, like the first, by the book series by P.L. Travers, this movie has Emily Blunt taking over from Oscar-winner Julie Andrews as the magical nanny who arrives once again just as the Banks family needs her most.

In the first film, she was nanny to Jane and Michael Banks. She took them on magical adventures that included a tea party on the ceiling and diving into a chalk picture for an animated musical number with dancing penguins. But the real magic she brought to the Banks family was a reminder of what was important. The fond but distracted parents learned that it was more important to fly a kite with the family than to keep the job that supports the family and its domestic employees or fight for the rights of women. (Well, the 60’s was a complicated time. But the message of family connections is still valid.)

This sequel very sweetly brings Mary Poppins back, once again arriving from the sky via a parrot-head handled umbrella, again to care for the Banks children, meaning the now-grown Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and voice of Paddington Ben Wishaw). Oh, and Michael’s three children, too, who have taken on too many adult responsibilities as the family still mourns the loss of their mother. Jane works for the rights of workers and does her best to help her brother and his children, who still live in the old house on Cherry Tree Lane.

They may lose the house, though, as Michael cannot pay the bank, yes, the same one his father worked at, what he owes. It’s now run by Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), who promises he will do everything he can to help Michael, but who shows up as a wolf in an animated adventure when Mary Poppins takes the children into the design on their late mother’s porcelain bowl, so perhaps he should not be trusted.

Jane and Michael remember Mary Poppins, but now believe that they only imagined the magical adventures. They have lost their ability to see magic in the world. Mary Poppins, with her brisk, no-explanations manner, has come back to show them how to find it. And that means a visit to another of her eccentric relatives (Meryl Streep, enjoying herself enormously), and journeys undersea via the bathtub and into the sky with balloons. And it means singing and dancing, too, with a wild music-hall-style number in an animated theater and a tender ballad about The Place Where Lost Things Go. Plus, Dick van Dyke is back. And he dances.

We take it for granted that this movie would have visual Disney magic. No one assembles a more gifted collection of production designers, costume designers, and visual effects designers than Disney, and no studio has a better, more organic sense of its own history and culture. So when Disney decided to revisit the 54-year-old classic based on P.L. Travers’s novels, after having already mined its own history with a movie about the making of that movie, it was fair to expect that it would look and feel as though we had never left. The magic touch is there, with gentle references to the earlier film, including the animated adventure with a retro, hand-drawn, cel-based look along the lines of Disney’s specialty, and an enchanting appearance from Dick Van Dyke, who played two characters in the original. Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins and “Hamilton’s’ Lin-Manuel Miranda as her lamp-lighting friend are practically perfect in every way. And, as “Saving Mr. Banks” reminded us, the real magic, is that at its heart it is not just about fantasy adventures but about healing the family. The songs, the special effects, the imagination are a lot of fun but what makes this movie top ten-worthy is the heart.

Parents should know that there are references to a sad death of a parent, worries about money, and some situations with mild peril. A song has some mildly spicy lyrics with references to nudity.

Family discussion: Which was your favorite adventure? Why didn’t Mary Poppins stay?

If you like this, try: the books by P.L. Travers and the classic original film

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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
Date Released to DVD: March 11, 2019

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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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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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:08 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 11, 2019

Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a little less fantastic than the first film in this new series set in the Harry Potter universe. It serves as something of a bridge between the first Potterverse film set in the past and outside of England and whatever chapter comes next. The first film introduced us to a new set of characters and settings, taking place mostly in New York in the 1920’s.

J.K. Rowling is still more of a novelist than a screenwriter, and the screenplay is unwieldy and cumbersome, with too little investment in the characters, too much focus on the secondary details, and too little attention to the stakes of the story.

As we glimpsed at the end of the last movie, our evil villain is Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp with bleached out hair and one light blue contact lens. And he’s something of a wizarding world white nationalist. While magics and non-magics (muggles in the UK, no-majs in the US) have existed peacefully side by side for centuries, Grindelwald wants the “pure-blood” magic people to reign over the mixed-race magics and the humans.

Our hero is still Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is much more comfortable with magical creatures, even the destructive and dangerous ones, than he is with people, magic or not. With people he looks away and mumbles. With creatures, he instinctively knows how to make them feel safe, maybe because he feels safe with them.

Really, that’s plenty for a movie. But Rowling piles on lots of characters and lots of storylines and lots of world capitals — so many we might forget we’re not in a Bond movie, except that they all have the same chilly, sepulchral, beige color scheme. The movie is cluttered with layers of references to the Potterverse, including a visit to Hogwarts (young Dumbledore!), boggarts, polyjuice potion, and an encounter with Nicolas Flamel. And it is cluttered with mini-plots that don’t go anywhere (as Chekov should have said, if you’re going to introduce a character who turns into a snake in the first act, that snake better save the day in the third) or mini-plots you wish didn’t go anywhere (a search for a lost brother, a romantic misunderstanding that would have seemed tired in a “Brady Bunch” episode). Plus, don’t put the wildly talented Ezra Miller in a movie and give him nothing to do but look glum.

Instead of a missing puzzle piece in a complex, thoroughly imagined world, it is more like fan service. There is much to look at and much to enjoy but I can’t say that it’s Fantastic.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: What would your boggart be and how would you make it ridiculous? Why do Grindelwald’s followers believe he is right?

If you like this, try: the “Harry Potter” series and the first “Fantastic Beasts” film

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Posted on November 8, 2018 at 5:48 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexual content/nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, explosions, guns, fights, torture, parent killed in front of child, domestic and child abuse, incest, very graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2018

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
Remember in “League of Their Own” when Tom Hanks said, “There’s no crying in baseball?” Well, there’s no crying in Lisbeth Salander movies, or there should not be. As imagined by the late Swedish journalist and author Steig Larsson, Lisbeth Salander is a pierced, tattooed, bisexual, motorcycle-riding, 21st century Sherlock Holmes, cerebral, relentless, on the side of justice, and with a mastery of logic, observation, and detail that borders on a superpower. And good in a fight.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is the first film based on the authorized continuation of the series by Larsson’s family, and here she is played by “The Crown’s” Claire Foy, following Noomi Rapace (in the Swedish movie trilogy) and Rooney Mara (in the David Fincher English-language film based on the first book in the series). There’s a subtle difference in the title of the book that reflects a shift in tone. The first book’s title is descriptive: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, followed by The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, both references to risks taken by Salander, with the implication that it was intentional. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is not about a choice she made or a dare she braved. There’s no action verb here. There’s no choice to adorn her body with a symbol of strength and fire. This title suggests a girl who has been placed in danger. Salenger as a damsel in distress? I don’t think so.

And then, like those last seasons of “Bewitched,” when they had really run out of ideas, the movie presents us with a sister we knew nothing about who apparently has been just waiting through three books to show up. We get a flashback of the two girls playing chess with, yes, a spider crawling on one of the pieces, before some very, very nasty stuff begins to happen with the girls’ father, who we already know from the earlier books was a very, very, very evil guy.

We go to these movies to see Lisbeth Salander hack, be invincibly tough, and right wrongs. She hacks into the US National Security Agency mainframe and downloads their most dangerous file. In a brief prelude she goes after a domestic abuser and we learn that she has been avenging other abused women. And she repeatedly takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But here the McGuffin is a computer program that can access and activate any nuclear weapons in the world, created for NSA (Stephen Merchant) who now regrets it and wants it destroyed. So he asks Salander for her help, bringing his young son along (Christopher Convery), just to ramp up the threat element. Salander gets the file, to the considerable consternation of NSA’s Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), who goes uses his considerable computing power to track down Salander, in a race with some very, very bad guys who want the file, too.

So, it’s your basic run with a gun stuff, ably staged if nothing particularly gripping, until the crying. Salander’s friend (and Larsson stand-in) Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) appears briefly for no particular reason. Foy does fine with Salanger’s thousand yard stare but the script lets her down by trying to have her be vulnerable and tough at the same time. Tbey’ve taken one of the most arresting characters in recent fiction and made her into just another sad girl. And they’ve taken what began as a superior series of action films and turned it into just another night-at-the-multiplex, sequel-heavy formula movie. If Salanger is caught in a spider’s web, it’s not the blah blah about the secret computer file, it’s the blah blah of the filmmakers.

Parents should know that this film has very intense and graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, death of a parent, torture, guns, explosions, severe spouse and child abuse, sexual abuse, very strong language, drinking, smoking and drugs.

Family discussion: What should Lisbeth have done for her sister? Why did they make different choices?

If you like this, try: the Swedish “Girl With a Dragon Tattoo” trilogy

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