Downton Abbey

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Assassination attempt, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 16, 2019
Copyright 2019 Focus Features

There’s a reason the hugely popular “Downton Abbey” television series and this first theatrical release are named for the property, not the characters. The part of Downton Abbey the building, or, I should say, the estate, is played by real-life historic Highclere Castle. It is over a thousand acres and has 200 rooms. And (which you can stay in via Airbnb). The story began in 2010 (1912 in Downton years) with the vital question of the future of the estate, which like most British great homes, was entailed. That means that it would always be inherited by the eldest male of each generation. (For more on this issue, see Sense and Sensibility and Moving Midway and let me just have a brief aside here to say that one completely revolutionary decision of our founding fathers that does not get enough credit for deciding that in the United States people could leave their property and land as they wished.).

The noble family occupying Downton Abbey are the Crawleys, headed by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville of “Paddington”), who with his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has three beautiful daughters and no sons. The property will thus go to to a cousin, who conveniently has become engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Unfortunately, as the first episode begins, he had been traveling to the United States on the Titanic, and he has been killed. Lady Mary is very sorry to lose her fiancé, but the family is in a complete upheaval because the next male relative is someone they don’t even know. Meanwhile, one of the great strengths and points of interest in the show is that it devotes equal attention and respect to the extensive staff below stairs, the servants, who all have complicated characters and conflicts and lives. They include Mrs. Patmore, the cook (Lesley Nicol), Carson, the head butler (Jim Carter), Tom Branson, and the chauffeur (Allen Leech), who crosses the uncrossable line by marrying one of the Crawley daughters. And there’s everyone’s favorite character, the acid-tongued Dowager Duchess exquisitely played by Dame Maggie Smith.

There is a ton of drama and romance over the run of the series, plus World War I and other seismic historical events.

And so now, here we are with the first Downton Abbey feature film, picking up the story in 1927, and once again the issue of property and inheritance is at issue. Writer Julian Fellowes had a daunting challenge. He had to take two dozen characters the fans were deeply invested in and were used to being able to watch through long-form storylines over the course of months. It’s kind of like “The Avengers” for the PBS/Anglophile crowd (I consider myself happily and proudly in both camps).

And, you know what? He pulls it off, with a brilliant mechanism for bringing everyone together in a high-pressure situation that gives even the most devoted fan many sigh-worthy and highly satisfying developments. As the movie begins, we follow a very important letter from its creation to its receipt. They are to receive a visit from the King and Queen of England (that would be King George and Queen Mary, the parents of future abdicator Edward VIII and “The King’s Speech” younger brother who became George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history). This is an honor that no one can turn down. And so Downton is made ready, every tiara and silver serving piece polished, every piece of furniture in every one of the 200 rooms shined, and every arcane protocol meticulously followed.

There are ups and downs, none of the downs too terrible, all of the ups reassuring and satisfying. If we think about it for a moment, we will remember why we do not want to return to that world. It will take less than a moment if we consider the possibility we would be returning as the servants, not the nobility; the Crawleys may worry about money, but they get to worry in some beautiful clothes and settings while they are nicely cared for. We are aware that both the upstairs and downstairs characters struggle with the restrictions of their positions but somehow it all seems like a fairy tale to escape to in this lush and beautiful version, where we can all imagine ourselves dressing for dinner and receiving a visit from the royal family.

Parents should know that this film includes references to terminal illness, family conflicts, assassination attempt, scuffle, an out of wedlock child, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Why did the servants rebel? Why did Violet change her mind about the property? Do you agree with what Thomas told the princess?

If you like this, try: “Gosford Park” and the “Downton Abbey’ television series

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Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Posted on August 8, 2019 at 5:48 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action and some impolite humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language ("freakin' awesome")
Alcohol/ Drugs: Hallucinogenic pollen
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 8, 2019
Date Released to DVD: November 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Nickelodeon
Six year old Dora and her cousin and best friend Diego are enjoying their dinner in Dora’s home in the rainforest. Dora thinks the food is “delicioso!” She turns to the screen and asks us in the audience: “Can you say delicioso?” Her father (“Ant-Man’s” Michael Pena) looks confused about who she’s talking to, but reassures her mother, “She’ll grow out of it.”

This is how Dora and the Lost City of Gold, the new live-action movie inspired by the animated series “Dora the Explorer” lets us know that its Dora, is a bit more grown-up than the Dora the Explorer we know from Nickelodeon. Following the prologue, a farewell dinner with Diego as he leaves for the United States, Dora is a 16-year-old (wide-eyed Isabella Moner, still rocking Dora’s headband and backpack, still the cheerful, curious, adventuresome girl with the monkey sidekick and the handy backpack. Her parents send her to stay with Diego’s family while they search for a legendary lost city filled with gold called Parapata.

Like Cady in “Mean Girls” and Mimi-Siku in “Jungle 2 Jungle,” Dora approaches her first experience in what some people think of as civilization as an amateur anthropologist. For Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), like many teenagers, feels like high school is “a horrible nightmare” and “a matter of life or death,” death, in his view, being noticed or embarrassed in any way. He tells Dora to be cool” and “keep a low profile.” He pleads with her, “For one day, stop being you.” “Is this to fit in with the indigenous people?” she asks.

Dora is not cool and she is incapable of keeping a low profile. In fact, the opposite of a low profile. She is seen as a threat by the school’s ambitious top student, Sammie (Madeleine Madden), the kind of girl who comes to a “come as a star” costume party as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Dora also befriends a picked-on science buff named Randy (Nicholas Combe), and she happily does a dorky dance at a school party.

On a school field trip to a natural history museum, Diego, Randy, Sammie, and Dora are teamed up for a scavenger hunt. As they look through the museum’s basement, they are kidnapped and flown to the jungle, where a bunch of bad guys want to use Dora to find her parents, and, through them, find the lost city of gold. Dora’s parents explain in the first scene in the movie that they are explorers, not treasure hunters. The bad guys are not about hunting treasure; they want to steal it. They are looters, not explorers. For Dora’s parents, “the discovery of new places is the treasure.”

The teens are rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), who explains that he is a professor friend of Dora’s parents. The teens and Alejandro race toward the lost city, trying to get there before the bad guys, with many challenges, adventures, and “jungle puzzles” — and a hallucinogenic pollen-induced cartoon sequence — along the way.

As a junior-sized “Indiana Jones,” this movie does pretty well, with adventures pitched at the right level for the 7-14 crowd. The script, co-written by Nicholas Stoller (“The Muppets,” “The Five Year Engagement”) and Matthew Robinson (“Monster Trucks”) has a buoyant sense of fun and a heroine whose greatest act of courage may be the way she accepts herself and those around her.

There has been a bit of controversy about this film following a review that seemed confused about the idea of aging up the cartoon character, suggesting there was something wrong about her portrayal. But this Dora, charmingly played by Moner, is not supposed to be a hormonal teenager. She is a child’s aspirational vision of an older child, someone who has more knowledge, ability, independence, and strength. And it is great to have a movie about a teenager where the resolution does not depend on her being attractive to a boy. Which is not to say that there is no boy-girl emotion in the film; it just isn’t the point, which is just right for its audience. “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is an exciting adventure with a boots-wearing monkey, a thief of a fox (watch for a funny PSA-style disclaimer at the beginning), and a heroine whose integrity, spirit, kindness, and curiosity about the world should inspire people of all ages.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril and mild action and violence (no one hurt), some potty humor, and some schoolyard language. The characters inhale some hallucinogenic pollen and there is a teen kiss.

Family discussion: Why doesn’t Dora follow Diego’s advice in school? Why does Sammie change her mind about Dora? What would you like to explore?

If you like this, try: the “Dora the Explorer” series and “Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain”

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Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Posted on May 9, 2019 at 5:51 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, potty references, mild words (jeez, hell, etc.)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Fantasy "drug," caffeine, brief drug humor
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/cartoon-style violence, parental loss
Diversity Issues: Stereotype of disabled villain
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 5, 2019
Copyright 2019 Legendary Pictures

People around me were gasping, hooting, and laughing at various details that passed right by me during “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” so if you are already a fan of the Pokémon franchise, the cards, the series, the games, you will be better off reading a review from someone as deeply enmeshed as you are. If you are only vaguely aware of the characters and premises of the international merchandising monster that began as “pocket monsters” and now has an entire universe of things to buy (more than 300 million copies sold of just one of there many, many games alone), then stick with me and we will try to assess this new movie on its own merits.

That would make merit number one for non- or not-yet fans the non-stop commentary of Ryan Reynolds, who provides the voice of the title character, a kind of PG version of his iconic Deadpool performance. After that, we have an appealing human lead character, Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith of “Paper Towns” and “The Getdown.” He interacts believably with the CGI characters and even manages a genuine character arc as we see him become less isolated and more vulnerable and authentic.

We first see Tim as a quiet loner working as an insurance appraiser. He lives in a world where people often catch or partner with Pokémon characters, something like pets or sidekicks or Phillip Pullman-style daemons. He once dreamed of being a Pokémon trainer (we learn more about that as we see the unchanged childhood bedroom in his dad’s apartment. But when he is out with a friend and has the chance to “catch” a Pokémon, it does not go well, probably because his heart is not in it.

Tim receives a phone call informing him that his estranged father, a detective who lives in Ryme City, has been killed in an accident. He travels to Ryme City, where a wheelchair-bound billionaire and philanthropist named Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) has established a utopian community for humans and Pokémon to live in harmony. In a welcome video on the train, Clifford explains that since he became disabled, the connection to the Pokémon has helped him to become “a better version of myself.” He wants Ryme City to make it possible for all humans to have that experience.

The police chief (Ken Watanabe) gives Tim the keys to his father’s apartment and tries to comfort him. But Tim shrugs off any condolences, insisting he has no real sense of loss for the father he has hardly ever seen. At the apartment, Tim meets a mysterious fuzzy yellow Pokémon Pikachu who has amnesia but who, unlike the other Pokémon creatures, speaks fluent English (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) that only Tim can understand. Pikachu wears a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat with Tim’s father’s contact information inside. He believes Tim’s father is still alive. Tim is at first reluctant to work with him, but some clues, some escapes, and an attractive young journalist (Kathryn Newton as Lucy) who tells him, “You just walked into quite a story,” persuade him to try to find out what really happened.

Their investigations take them to a mysterious lab in a remote valley, to Clifford’s office, where he shows them a detailed VR depiction of the accident, an encounter with Mr. Mime, who may be a witness but won’t say (hah!), and Ryme City’s most famous annual event, a pride parade and carnival celebrating Pokémon.

Tim’s increased confidence and connection to others is a sharp contrast to Clifford’s notion of what makes someone a better version of himself. But it may be hard to notice that in the midst of non-stop special effects and elaborate, video-game style action sequences. For fans, this may be a B+, but for outsiders without a gaming controller, it’s a couple of grades lower.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence (no one badly hurt) with some scary monsters, themes of absent or neglectful fathers, some fantasy drug material and brief drug humor, and some potty jokes and mild bad language (hell, jeez, etc.) SPOILER ALERT: The movie also perpetuates some tired and obsolete cliches about disabled villains whose evil acts are inspired by an effort to be “cured.”

Family discussion: What would the better version of you look like? Would you like to be a detective?
Which Pokémon would you like to have as a partner and why?

If you like this, try: “Monster Trucks” and the Detective Pikachu video game

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3D Based on a television show Based on a video game Crime DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Movies Mystery

Bumblebee

Posted on December 20, 2018 at 5:34 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action-style violence, weapons, explosions, mayhem, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 2, 2019

Copyright 2018 Paramount
You know how Transformers turn from cars into robots and robots into cars? Well, with this movie, an origin story for fan favorite Transformer Bumblebee, who “speaks” via audio clips from the radio. The ridiculously bombastic Transformer series just kept getting bigger, louder, and dumber. Roger Ebert famously called one of them a “horrible experience of unbearable length” and they got worse after that. This Bumblebee has transformed itself, kind of, into a more warm-hearted “ET” plus Herbie the Love Bug-style story with a retro soundtrack, directed by LAIKA’s Travis Knight. And it’s…better. Not great, but it won’t make your ears ring or your brain cells melt.

Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is an unhappy teenager living in San Francisco in 1987. She is still mourning for her dad, who died suddenly the year before, and counting the days until she can leave home. Everything seems an affront to her — the terrible uniform she has to wear working at the amusement park food stand, selling lemonade and hot dogs on a stick, her mother’s odious boyfriend who has moved into their home and thinks he can tell her what to do, and the monstrous unfairness of not having a car. So she spends much of her free time sulking and wearing an endless assortment of t-shirts from various edgy 80’s bands to show how righteously disaffected she is.

Meanwhile, after losing a battle to the evil Decepticons on their home planet, the good-guy Autobots led by Optimus Prime (still voiced by Peter Cullen, thank goodness) put their top soldier, Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) into an escape pod and tell him to set up a safe place on a remote planet called Earth. He arrives in the middle of a military wargame that leads to a chase, and is soon tracked down by two Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux), who permanently damage his voicebox and his memory cells. Later on, when Charlie wheedles a beat-up old yellow VW bug from a junk dealer, it turns out to be Bumblebee, and he and Charlie begin to form a friendship.

This takes us back to the first “Transformers” movie, oh, so many explosions and robot fights ago, when it was about the relationship between Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf) and his special space friend. Bumblebee’s inability to communicate, until Charlie figures out how to give him access to a radio and he figures out to use sound clips from it to “talk,” give a special poignancy to those first encounters. But that is undermined in part by subsequent scenes, which spend too much time on weak sub-plots about mean girls and the nerdy but lovable boy next door. It is nice that Charlie is very clear about setting boundaries with the boy, and he respects that. The movie could have skipped the scenes of Bumblebee inadvertently trashing Charlie’s house TP-ing the bully’s house and overturning her car, diversions that go nowhere and are not nearly as merry or endearing as they are intended to be as Knight seems more interested in the mechanics of the scene than what they add to the storyline.

All of this is of course just building up to lots more action as both the military and the Decepticons (best line in the movie is when Cena points out that the very name Decepticon should make us worry) come after Bumblebee. The Decepticons first appear to befriend the humans (and incidentally invent the Internet). So, lots of bombast and shooting and chases and explosions.

No matter what, I always enjoy seeing cars turn into robots and robots turn into cars, and I appreciated the lower-key, retro setting. If the series is not completely transformed, it does remind us why we liked the Transformers to begin with, and that’s a good start.

Parents should know that this film has a few bad words and extended sci-fi/action-style violence with characters injured and killed, weapons, explosions, and mayhem. Humans are vaporized. A positive element of the movie is Charlie’s clear boundaries with the boy who likes her.

Family discussion: Why does Charlie trust Bumblebee? Why does Agent Burns change his mind?

If you like this, try: “The Iron Giant”

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