Free Guy

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 12:05 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Language|Crude/Suggestive References|Strong Fantasy Violence)
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video-game violence with powerful real and fantasy weapons, guns, chases, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 12, 2021

Copyright 20th Century Studios 2021
In 1966, Tom Stoppard gave us “Hamlet” from the perspective of two of its most minor characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” a meditation on the impossibility of understanding the sometimes random, sometimes malicious forces of life, not as grim as it sounds. In “The Lion King 1 1/2,” Disney gave us the same story as the original “Lion King” but from the perspective of two of the main character’s sidekicks, the wart hog and the meerkat. The theme is basically building on a popular franchise, but it does expand on the story. In “Free Guy,” this idea goes further by giving a video game’s NPC (non-playable character) who is so generic his name is Guy (Ryan Reynolds) agency and that most human of gifts, the chance to grow and learn and love. Reynolds, who also produced, is never less than terrific here in a role ideally suited for his gifts. It’s easy to forget how subtle an actor he is, even in wild comedies like “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and larger than life roles like “Deadpool.” At each stage, from a one-note character barely more than some code and pixels to the first suggestions of mingled longing triumphing over fear, he calibrates with exquisite precision exactly where these nascent emotions and increasing confidence are progressing.

Guy is blissfully ignorant that his only purpose in the digital world of Free City is to hit the floor when the bank robbers, avatars of the real-world players, break in and start shooting. (Listen carefully to the robbers’ voices for some surprise appearances.) He wakes up so happy every morning we almost expect him to start singing “Everything is Awesome,” like Chris Pratt in “The LEGO Movie.” He is happy because he does not know there is another way to be. He gets up. He has some cereal and feeds his goldfish. He selects one of the identical blue button-down shirts and khaki slacks from his closet. He stops at a local cafe to get coffee. He goes to work as a bank teller, with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howrey), a security guard, and then the next group of robbers break in.

And then, one day, he sees The Girl (Jodie Comer of “Killing Eve”). She Molotov Girl, is the avatar for Millie, a gamer and programmer whose goal in the game is not racking up points, which players get from robbing and killing people. She is looking for proof that Antwan (Taika Waititi, having fun as a temperamental tyrant) the head of the computer game company cheekily called Soonami, stole the code she developed for a different game with Keys (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things,” very appealing), her former business partner. Keys now works for Soonami, with his friend and sometimes competitor Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

The avatars in the game, representing the real-life players, wear sunglasses. Guy puts on a pair and for the first time sees what the players see, a Pokemon Go-style assortment of goals and prizes and attributes. Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) has a lot of fun going back and forth between the world inside the game and the real world of Soonami, Keys, and Millie, plus some glimpses of the players behind their vastly more badass avatars. Gamers will find a lot of clever references to their world, especially the creation of a new character near the end who looks very familiar but is not fully programmed. And anyone who’s been to a blockbuster in the past few years will enjoy some surprise cameos. “Don’t have a good day; have a GREAT day.” This movie is smarter than it needs to be, and it is very satisfying to see Guy confront existential questions and discover, as lucky humans do, that it is love and helping others that makes life meaningful. It may start with as small a step as a Henley shirt or a cappuccino. All it takes is wanting more.

Parents should know that this film includes extended video-game action and violence with many real and fantasy weapons, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Which game would you prefer? What kind of game would you create?

If you like this, try: “Ready Player One,” “Jumanji” and “The LEGO Movie”

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Mortal Kombat

Posted on April 22, 2021 at 7:00 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some crude references, language throughout, and strong bloody violence
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Pervasive peril and violence, very gory and disturbing images, characters injured and killed including a child
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 23, 2021
Date Released to DVD: July 5, 2021
Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers

Mortal Kombat” is a movie based on a video game. So, let’s be real here. We’re not looking for or even expecting complex characters or surprising plot twists. We’re here for the martial arts carnage and a few middle-school-level wisecracks, and that we get.

Character development? I’ve seen more complex backstories on Cabbage Patch Dolls. All you need to know is there are good guys and bad guys and the stakes are the very future of the planet, which, it turns out, turns on, you got it, mortal combat, trial by combat — to the death. Oh, and don’t expect it to make a ton of sense, either. Just sit back and watch the fights.

It begins with a pre-credit sequence set in an edenic 17th century Japan, with a devoted farming couple, their gallant young son, and infant daughter. As the father (Hiroyuki Sanada as Hanzou) is out getting water, bad guys arrive, led by B-Han (Joe Taslim), whose awesome fighting skills are enhanced by his ability to manifest ice. He will later be known as Sub-Zero. He says he is there to avenge, but we do not get any details. Only the baby survives, and she is taken away by a glow-eyed guy who travels via lightning named Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano).

Skip ahead to present day, where Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is fighting for $200 a bout and not doing very well. He is devoted to his wife and daughter. And he has a mysterious dragon-shaped birthmark, which identifies him to those in the know as a champion. one of those designated to fight for the good guys. Not much time for narrative here. Or anywhere else in the movie. It’s battle, battle, training, battle all the way.

Which is a good thing, because the martial arts are great and, for those who are fans of the game, let me quote Wikipedia:

The basic Fatalities are finishing moves that allow the victorious characters to end a match in a special way by murdering their defeated, defenseless opponents in a gruesome manner.

The finishing moves/fatalities are suitably gruesome. Like guts falling out of ripped-open torsos and being sliced open by a buzzsaw like a side of beef. And gallons of spurting blood. As for the script, well, it has exactly what you’d expect, a lot of “the prophecy is upon us” and “winning Mortal Kombat cannot be left to chance,” portentousness, “if you fail to discover your inner power you will never defeat your opponent” pep talks, plus some middle-school-level “humor.”

So, fans of the game will enjoy the call-outs to their favorite characters and inside information and those who are not familiar to the game but like to see martial arts fights with lots of gore will be suitably entertained and even look forward to the sequel.

Parents should know that this film has extended and very gory and graphic peril and violence, along with strong and crude language and references.

Family discussion: Which power do you think you could manifest? How do you fight people who do not follow the rules?

If you like this, try: The game and the “Mythic Quest” and “The Guild” television series.

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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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Rampage

Posted on April 11, 2018 at 4:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language, and crude gestures
Profanity: About a dozen bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and action-style violence with chases, explosions, guns, bombs, monsters, many human and animal characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 13, 2018
Date Released to DVD: July 16, 2018
Copyright New Line Cinema 2018

Pay attention, my friends, this one is a little bit tricky. In his last movie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played an avatar in a movie about a video game. In Rampage, he plays a human in a movie based on a video game, though in the video game, big in arcades in the 1980’s, it was the animals who were the avatars, and your task as player was to help them destroy the city while Johnson’s human character in the film is there to protect it.

Still with me?

Well, maybe “human” does not adequately describe Johnson’s character, the primatologist/Special Forces veteran Davis Okoye, the essence of movie hero, always ready with his fists or a quip or both at the same time. And, you know, he looks like The Rock.

Okoye works at a San Diego animal preserve, where he is especially close to an albino gorilla named George. They communicate via sign language. And it’s all downright Edenic until George is hit with spray from one of three canisters of gene-altering material that “edit” his DNA to make him grow to King Kong size and make him furious, aggressive, and destructive.

With the help of the beautiful scientist who developed the gene-editing juice, hoping to help humanity and not in any way aware that the evil corporation she was working for was planning to weaponize it. Naomie Harris plays Dr. Kate Caldwell, and Jake Lacy and Malin Akerman are the oh-so-evil brother and sister who run the corporation. Well, she’s evil; he’s way over his head. Then there’s Joe Manganiello as a mercenary hired by the evil sister, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a FBI official with a Southern accent, and a walloping lot of CGI as the three monsters — those two other canisters — Okoye has to find a way to stop.

If they ever give out an Oscar for efficiency of set-up, this movie is a contender. It quickly assigns an attribute to each character and lets us know immediately what the stakes are in every scene. Director Brad Peyton (“San Andreas,” also starring Johnson) knows we’re here for the action, and spends just enough time between scenes of shootouts, explosions, and chases to remind us why we should care what happens to the characters. Manganiello’s character has a big scar on his face, so we know he’s tough. The evil sister says, “There’s a reason we were doing these experiments in space and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity,” just to make it clear that she is the bad guy. In case we missed it the first time, when her hapless brother says, “You can’t liquidate all your problems,” she snaps back, “Agree to disagree.”

And Dr. Kate lies to her boss on the phone, so we know that she is not a rule follower. Plus, we glimpse a photo in her apartment showing her hugging a cancer patient, so we know she is nice and probably bereaved. Morgan’s FBI character has a seen-it-all, heard-it-all look but a bit of a twinkle in his eye. And a homing device has the three giant, hungry, and very hostile animals going full-speed to Chicago.

Does any of it make sense? Not really. Do we care? Not really. Just don’t think too hard about how long it would take for debris to fall from space, what condition it might be in, or how long it would take an antidote to work. This is a movie based on an arcade game, and it is much better than most game-based films.

In part that is because the game was from the 80’s and didn’t really have a storyline, so there was no risk of being too faithful or not faithful enough, and in part because it never takes itself too seriously. It takes the stunts and action seriously, though. There’s a wow of a plane crash and some good moments in the midst of a massive destruction of Chicago’s Loop. And George (motion capture actor Jason Liles) is, if not realistic, believable. Johnson is right in his sweet spot here, and so are we, with a popcorn treat to kick off the summer season.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and action-style violence with chases, explosions, guns, bombs, monsters, many human and animal characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, some strong language, and some crude humor.

Family discussion: Who should make the rules about genetic experimentation? Who in this film follows orders and who does not? Why did Davis say he was not a “people person?”

If you like this, try: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Transformers”

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Tomb Raider

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:03 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong language (s-words, one mouthed f-word)
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, chases, guns, fights, explosions, many characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018
Copyright Warner Brothers 2018

A video game needs just enough narrative to add some stakes to the challenges. We care more about getting the avatar from A to B if there is a reason — a treasure, escaping the bad guys, revenge. And the action scenes need just enough complexity to hold our interest. The “reason” equivalent is our own skill and seeing if we can do better than an opponent or better than our last attempt. But a movie needs a story and characters and dialog that have to be familiar enough to be believable and new enough to hold our interest. And that is why it is much harder to translate a game to the big screen than it is a book or a play. And that is also why so far none of the attempts to do so have worked very well. It may be tough to get a video game avatar over a chasm or through a labyrinth, but it is even tougher to make her into a movie star, even when she is as appealing a character as adventurer Lara Croft.

The good news is that this reboot stars Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, a less remote, more real version of the character first played on screen by Angelina Jolie in two earlier “Tomb Raider” films, and by a bunch of pixels in a video game series. While the game version was idealized and the Jolie version was similarly polished, curvy, and near-all-powerful, swinging (literally) through her fabulous manor and ordering around her Alfred-like nerd-of-all-trades, this Lara is a little bit vulnerable and a little bit lost. We first see her losing a boxing match, forced to tap out before she loses consciousness in a choke hold. Because she will not sign papers declaring that her father is dead, though he has been missing for seven years, she cannot access his fortune or that fabulous manor.

Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) loves his daughter (though he calls her “Sprout,” a truly awful nickname). But devastated by the loss of his wife, he has spent most of his time away from Lara as he seeks some way to connect to the supernatural. He disappeared on an expedition to a remote island where the legend has it that an Egyptian queen with powers of life and death is entombed. Since the movie is called “Tomb Raider,” you know where this is going.

And you also know that who cares about the story, this is about the chases and stunts. There’s a good chase on a bicycle “fox hunt.” And there’s a great stunt in the middle of the film involving a rusted-out crashed plane stuck on a branch over a waterfall. Walt Goggins is a nicely creepy bad guy. But once they actually make it inside the tomb it gets too game-ish, and by the time it hints at another chapter, well, it’s game over.

Parents should know that this film include extended peril and violence, chases, guns, fights, explosions, many characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, some strong language

Family discussion: Why wouldn’t Lara sign the papers? How did growing up without a father influence her choices?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Tomb Raider” films with Angelina Jolie and the Brendan Fraser version of “The Mummy”

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