Thunder Force

Posted on April 9, 2021 at 12:10 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action/violence, and mild suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence, mostly comic but some mayhem and characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 9, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
Writer/director Ben Falcone likes to cast his wife, the endlessly talented Melissa McCarthy, as characters who are impulsive, not very bright, and not very good at reading the room, picking up social cues, or keeping thoughts unspoken. So, we know what we’re going to get from “Thunder Force,” with McCarthy as a forklift operator and Van Halen fan who unexpectedly becomes a superhero. I prefer their “Life of the Party,” with McCarthy in less of a slapstick role, but of course it is fun to watch. It takes too long to get going, with a not-very-interesting origin story, and three things are not as funny as they hope: references to 90s pop culture, questioning the sexual orientation of the heroines, and having the bad guys kill people.

There are two twists to the usual superhero backstory here. First, and most intriguingly, it is set in a world where the only people with superpowers are evil. Back in the 80s, a radioactive blah blah but it only affected those with a genetic predisposition to be receptive, and all of those people were sociopaths. So, ordinary humans are powerless against a bunch of selfish, conscienceless, supervillains who behave like the mean kids in middle school. Except instead of not letting you sit at their table in the cafeteria they throw electric fireballs that blow things up. They’re known as the Miscreants. (Great word!)

The Miscreants include Bobby Cannevale as a mayoral candidate who insists on being referred to as “The King” (not funny the first time or any of the subsequent times), running against an AOC-like rival named Rachel Gonzales (Melissa Ponzio), and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” star Pom Klementieff as Laser, who has the power of throwing electrified fireballs and the hobby of killing people.

Second, the superheroes here are middle-aged, plus sized ladies. Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) met in a Chicago school, when Emily, a brainy transfer student, was being bullied and Lydia stood up for her. They became friendship bracelet-sharing BFFs, and spent a lot of time together, including dinner with Emily’s grandmother, who took Emily in after her scientist parents were killed by the Miscreants. Emily is determined to carry on the work of her parents and find a way to defeat the supervillains.

Lydia and Emily become estranged in high school, when Emily says she has no time for anything but her work. Years later, as their reunion approaches, Lydia is a forklift operator in a Slayer t-shirt and Emily is the founder of a hugely successful company with a new headquarters in Chicago. Lydia goes to the the office to bring Emily to the reunion, is told not to touch anything, but is incapable of obeying that or pretty much any other cautionary direction. Suddenly she’s in a dentist chair-type thing with needles going into her cheeks. She has accidentally injected herself with the serum Emily has been working on for years to create superpowers for good guys. Her colleagues are Allie (Melissa Leo), and Emily’s super-smart daughter Tracy (a warm and winning performance by Taylor Mosby), a college graduate at age 15.

Lydia continues to get the injections, building up her strength, speed, and fighting skills. For some reason, this involves eating a lot of raw chicken. Meanwhile, Emily is undergoing a far less strenuous regimen, to give her the superpower of invisibility. Finally, they are ready to go on a trial run, stopping the robbery of a convenience store. At this point, Lydia and Emily prevent the thugs from stealing money but even these two powerhouses cannot prevent Jason Bateman from stealing the movie. I won’t spoil who or what his character is, but he is far and away the movie’s highlight. He and McCarthy spark off each other in a delicious manner, both with exquisite comic timing and unexpected and offbeat rhythms. Now that is a superpower.

Parents should know that while this is a comedy, there is some scary action with explosions, murders, and potential domestic terrorism. There are repeated references to the deaths of Emily’s parents. The movie also includes some strong language, alcohol, suggestive content and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What super powers would you like to have? Why did Lydia and Emily like each other? What did Emily learn about Lydia from Tracy?

If you like this, try: “Life of the Party” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”

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Coming 2 America

Posted on March 4, 2021 at 5:51 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, and drug content
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Threats of violence, guns seen but not used, martial arts combat
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but transphobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: March 5, 2021
Copyright 2021 Amazon Studios

I’ve got nothing against fan service, content created just for people who are already devoted to the characters or stories or performers. But it is fair to ask whether it can be more than that, or if it is even trying for more than that. “Coming 2 America” looks like its primary priority was a fun project, with the secondary side benefit of pleasing the fans and making some money. It’s lazy but pleasant and occasionally funny even if you don’t appreciate all of the inside jokes. In other words, by pandemic standards, it’s a mildly entertaining watch.

“Coming 2 America” is made 33 years after the original film starring Eddie Murphy as Akeem, an African prince from the fictional and idyllic country of Zamunda, who goes to New York to find a bride. In “Coming 2 America,” Murphy and many of his co-stars return. Akeem is happily married to the woman he brought back from Queens, Lisa (again played by Shari Headley), and they have three daughters. Lisa’s father, Cleo McDowell (again played by John Amos) has moved his fast food restaurant to Zamunda and is still insisting it is not a rip-off of McDonald’s.

But Akeem’s father, the king (James Earl Jones) is dying, and Akeem’s daughters cannot inherit the throne because Zamudan law and tradition requires a male heir. And the king is not above suggesting that fathering daughters is an indication of Akeem’s lack of manliness. The daughters have warrior training and are loving, thoughtful young women who care deeply for their country. But they cannot inherit the throne. General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), who heads the neighboring country of Nextdoria (this name gives you some idea of the level of humor in the film), wants Akeem’s oldest daughter to marry his nephew, to unite the two countries. Her new husband would become king.

Akeem discovers that when he was in Queens, in a one-time encounter he has no memory of (because it did not exist in the original film, but let’s just ret-con it into being), he fathered a son. And he decides to go back to Queens to bring that son back to take over as heir to the throne.

All of which is just an excuse for a lot of references to the first film, not just meeting up with many of the characters played then and now by Murphy and Arsenio Hall as Akeem’s sidekick, Semmi. That means we see updated versions of the guys at the barber shop (both the barbers and the elderly white alte kackers and the preacher for hire, and more. It also means we get an entirely unnecessary recap of the original film, inserted as filler, and even more unnecessary references to other Murphy films for which additional unnecessary sequels are apparently underway. It’s the MCU (Murphy Cinematic Universe)!

Akeem’s son is Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), who agrees to go to Zamunda, bringing his mother, played by the redoubtable Leslie Jones. Will he be able to pass the “prince test?” Will Akeem’s daughter get over her resentment? How about her mother? Will Lavelle agree to marry General Izzi’s compliant and extremely beautiful and limber daughter?

You know the answer to that as well as you know that there will be a lot of silly stuff along the way, including some very crude humor and vulgar language for a PG-13, and some outtakes over the end credits (stay all the way to the end). It’s all done with good humor and panache. If the energy behind the fabulous Ruth Carter costumes and choreography by Fatima Robinson are in sharp contrast to the “let’s do it in one take” vibe of Murphy’s performance (presumably the obviousness of the insertion of the stunt double was intended to be funny), and the “let’s not think too hard about the plot” (really? Girls can’t inherit the throne? Date rape? A trans joke in 2021?) the movie’s unequivocal endorsement of true love based in respect and friendship (and of the ability of women to fill any role that appeals to them) makes it easy to overlook its failings.

Parents should know that this movie has martial arts combat and guns are shown but not used. Characters drink and get drunk and smoke marijuana. There is extended crude humor and language, possible date rape, and a transphobic joke.

Family discussion: What have been the most significant changes in culture since the first film and are they reflected in the sequel? What test would you give a prince?

If you like this, try: “Coming to America”

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The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run

Posted on March 4, 2021 at 5:35 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, some thematic elements, and mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scene in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and violence zombies, character incinerated, threat of execution, kidnapping
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 5, 2021

Copyright 2021 Paramount
Resistance is futile. SpongeBob is going to win you over. So settle back to enjoy the ebullient silliness, sweet friendship, origin story details, and very surprising guest stars in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run.”

A quick recap. SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) is a Sponge who lives in an underwater community called Bikini Bottom. His best friend is a starfish named Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke). He loves his pet snail, Gary. And he works as a fry cook at a restaurant called the Krusty Krab with a legendary dish called Krabby Patties. Their rival, Sheldon Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) is always trying to steal the recipe, and, as is pointed out in this film, is always foiled by SpongeBob, whose clueless innocence somehow unknowingly thwarts all of Plankton’s nefarious plans. When Plankton’s “robot wife” explains this to him, Plankton decides he has to focus on SpongeBob. And when he sees a flier from Poseidon (Matt Berry) offering a reward for delivery of a snail….Plankton steals Gary. Why does Poseidon want a snail? Because all he cares about is how he looks and he has depleted all of the skin-restoring slime of all the snails he has. (SpongeBob might be silly, very very silly, but some of it is based on life, which is also very very silly at times. Snail slime is indeed used for skin care.) Poseidon’s Chancellor is delightfully voiced by Reggie Watts. And Plankton’s robot Otto is voiced by the equally delightful Awkwafina.

And so SpongeBob and Patrick take to the road to rescue Gary, and they meet all kinds of interesting and surprising and hilariously and perfectly cast creatures along the way, including a wise, if Delphic, talking tumbleweed named Sage (Keanu Reeves) and dancing zombies led by El Diablo himself (Danny Trejo). We get a flashback to the childhood days of the characters when they first met at camp (this is a teaser for an upcoming new spin-off series). And we get to see SpongeBob and Patrick squabble, make up, and get happily sidetracked in the Lost City of Atlantic City. The quips, from goofy to (comparatively) sophisticated keep coming, it’s all very colorful, and did I mention Keanu?

Parents should know that this movie has cartoon-style peril and humor, though some love action zombies and the incineration of a character might be too much for very young or very sensitive viewers. There is some schoolyard language and a threat of execution.

Family discussion: What was Sage’s most important advice? Why did Patrick and SpongeBob get distracted? If you had a bravery coin, what would you do with it?

If you like this, try: the SpongeBob television series, games, comic books, and other movies

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Tom and Jerry

Posted on February 26, 2021 at 3:59 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG PG for rude humor, cartoon violence, and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic mayhem
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Bros.
Making a live action movie about the cartoon characters Tom (the cat) and Jerry (the mouse) was a bad idea. These “let’s see what we can dig up from the intellectual property hiding in our files” reboots usually end up as lifeless as we can expect when they are inspired by balance sheets instead of characters. But “Tom and Jerry” misses even that low bar, dispiriting in its waste of the iconic cartoon characters in the title, a usually reliable director, and some of the most talented performers in movies today.

It may be impossible to make a feature film out of a one-joke set-up that more likely to be sustained in a seven-minute animated short. Certainly, if that question ever goes to court, this movie will be introduced as evidence.

A refresher: Tom wants to catch Jerry and Jerry outsmarts him. Think Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote without access to Acme explosives and anvils. But while Road Runner is being chased around spare western landscapes, Tom and Jerry often create chaos and mayhem indoors. So a lot of Tom and Jerry is things falling over and crashing and smashing.

None of that is especially well staged here. The mayhem/slapstick scenes seem to have been set up based on what they could convey with technology given the interaction between two-dimensional cartoon characters and physical reality, rather than what is involving or engaging. Slapstick has its charms, but it requires a precision of timing that allows us to appreciate the destruction before moving on to the next faceplant. And even though they are 2D cartoon characters, and thus instantly restored to perfect condition after every encounter, setting it in a 3D environment hampers some of the ebullience of the forces of id.

The biggest mistake, though, is expecting, even demanding, more affection from the audience for the characters than it earns. There doesn’t have to be a likable character to root for in a movie, but it helps.

Tom plays the piano in Central Park, busking to make money (what is he going to use it for?), pretending to be blind to make even more from guilt and pity. Jerry comes along, covers his sign with one of his own, and starts collecting from the crowd until Tom sees him and the crowd sees that he can see. Chases ensue.

Meanwhile, Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) loses one job because Tom crashes into her bike and spills all the clean laundry she is delivering (which is not even in a bag, but okay). And so she gets another by lying about her credentials. So 20 minutes in, two of our main characters are cheaters.

Kayla’s new job is as a temp at a super-luxurious hotel which needs support for a very high-profile, no expenses spared wedding of two mega-celebrities. (Note to Hollywood: It is time to stop trying to seem relevant by creating characters who are influencers.) Kayla is there to help make everything go smoothly, even when the groom wants elephants and military-grade drones, when the bride’s ring goes missing, and when Jerry is spotted in the kitchen. At the hotel, she has a rival who sees her as a threat and gets help from a ditsy bell girl.

Kayla brings in Tom to help catch Jerry. It does not go well. That’s it. That’s the movie.

The excellent cast does its best, and believably interacts with the animated characters. But no one can make the dreary dialogue sound smart or even interesting. The problem is not that the animated characters are 2D. The problem is that the script is 1D.

Parents should know that this film includes comic violence and mayhem including fire, chases, and crashes. There is brief potty humor.

Family discussion: Why did Kayla lie? Why couldn’t Ben and Preeta tell each other the truth? How did Kayla try to fix the problems she created?

If you like this, try: the original Tom and Jerry cartoons and the Road Runner cartoons.

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Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Posted on February 11, 2021 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, mostly comic
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 13, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 30, 2021

I hereby forgive Jamie Dornan for everything “50 Shades”-related, even his terrible rendition of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” He is such a hoot in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” and so clearly enjoying himself that I was utterly charmed.

I’m not sure what else it is fair for me to tell you about “Barb and Star,” though, because I want you to have the fun of discovering it for yourself. In order to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, it may be a bit cryptic. The best I can do is tell you that if you are looking for something amiably goofy and offbeat, ranging from gentle comedy to outright surreality, you will enjoy it.

I’m guessing that screenwriters and stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumalo (who also write “Bridesmaids”) created the irrepressibly cheerful characters of Barb and Star as way of goofing around together. Think a female, very midwestern version of the Gil Faizon (Kroll) and George St. Geegland “Oh, Hello” characters created by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. Like them, Wiig and Mumalo have the greatest affection for their characters, recognizing how silly (and poignant) it is for them to be clueless and yet very sure of themselves in what may seem to us to be very constricted little worlds. We may laugh at them, but if we condescend because they are outside of our own world, we will learn about our own refusal to acknowledge the constrictions we live in, ourselves.

Star (short for Starbera) and Barb (not short for anything, just Barb), are middle-aged ladies, one divorced, one widowed, who “work” together at the Jennifer’s Convertibles, the poshest store in tiny Soft Rock, Nebraska. They also live together in a house that probably has tiles with cute sayings like “Kiss the cook!”

They never get tired of talking to each other. Indeed, they spend all day at Jennifer’s Convertibles sitting on one of the convertible sofas sipping coffee and talking to each other, a constant pleasant twittering. When a couple wants to talk to them about actually buying the sofa, they refuse. Which may be one reason they find out soon after that the chain is folding they are laid off.

They get some severance money and when a friend (Wendi McLendon-Covey) tells them about her wonderful Florida vacation (“Tommy Bahama top to bottom and a 24-hour CVS!”), they decide to go. It feels like a big risk. They are very comfortable knowing everything and everyone where they are. But the stories they tell each other are old stories, so maybe it’s time to make some new ones. And so they pack, including travelers’ checks left over from Barb’s wedding. And culottes (helpfully defined for us as a skirt with a cloth divider kind of like very wide shorts). And off they go, entertaining themselves on the airplane by imagining a friend they’d like to have named Trish.

And that is where they meet Edgar (Dornan), who is supposed to be carrying out a nefarious assignment, but is distracted by uncertainty, a hallucinatory gigantic drink called Buried Treasure, and of course Barb and Star. The rest of the film includes a wild musical number, another musical number, a mouse orchestra, a threesome, a child who looks like the kid from “Up” and sings along to Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb as he delivers newspapers (and more), a nefarious villain with a familiar face, a book called How to Know the Person You Love Loves You Even if They Don’t Act Like It Most of the Time, love advice from a crab, and, yes, Tommy Bahama.

The movie sails happily from the silly to the surreal, from the goofy to the even goofier. Director Josh Greenbaum holds it all together so that even the wildest moments feel part of the same world as the gentle jokes of two middle-aged women on their first plane trip. One reason is that he never condescends to the characters. He genuinely loves them, and so we do, too. Watching it is like having champagne bubbles tickle your nose.

Parents should know that this is a light comedy with some very mature material including brief strong language, crude sexual references and non-explicit situations, drinking and drugs, and peril and violence (mostly comic). A mega-villain plots a massive attack and commits an off-camera murder. There are also references to divorce and to the death of a spouse.

Family discussion: Why are Barb and Star such good friends? What surprised you about them?

If you like this, try: “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion,” “Spy,” and “Lost in Paris”

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