Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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My Little Pony: A New Generation

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:50 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very mild peril and tension
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hasbro
“My Little Pony: A New Generation” follows in the tradition of previous media from the world of MLP: candy colors, poppy music, gentle humor, warm-hearted lessons about friendship, and basically a way to sell merchandise. We know where we are when it begins by reminding us that it is produced by Hasbro, a toy company.

The MLP toys could have been designed by algorithm to appeal to children. Like Pokemon, Paw Patrol, and boy bands, they are all about reassuring messages of friendship and teamwork. They have an assortment of cheery colors, and personalities — well, attributes — allowing a child to pick a favorite and collect them all. They have lots of hair to play with and style plus magical powers and problem-solving skill to spark fantasy play. I remember the bride MLP that lived with a child in our house for a while, white, with glittery hair, a hair brush, a veil, a big diamond ring that fit on her hoof, and no sign of (or need of) a groom, either stable groom or bridegroom. The MLP handlers know what kids like. Improbably, the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” series was popular with college students for a while and somehow there were groups of adult male fans who called themselves “Bronies” and attend BronyCons. There is a documentary about them called “A Brony Tale.”

I prefer the flat, 2D-style animation to this movie’s 3D CGI modeling and some young fans may feel the same, but other than that it fits the algorithm nicely, with top talent providing the voices, catchy songs, and a sweet message of, no surprise, friendship.

In this iteration, the MLP have lost their magic and their friendship. The world has divided and the three groups — ponies, unicorns, and Pegasi have been taught to fear and consider themselves superior to each other, except for Sunny (Vanessa Hudgens) a brave little pony whose father taught her that all the different little horse creatures should be friends. When a unicorn named Izzy (Kimiko Glenn) comes to the area where the ponies live, everypony runs away. “Are we playing hide and seek?” she asks joyfully. But they are just scared, except for Sunny. Soon the pony and the unicorn team up to bring friendship and magic back to their world. It is cheerful and colorful and sweet as candy, with just a little bit of excitement and just enough problems to be solved with courage and teamwork.

Okay? We good? Anything else you’d like to know? Let me unpack some of the semiotics of this story for you. It is as much a sign of the unprecedented high sensitivities of our times as it is the content of the film, but the characters and messages of the film are likely to raise some parental eyebrows and perhaps some hackles as well. The pony children are all told lies in school about the unicorns and the Pegasi. The unicorns are told that the earth ponies are lazy, smell bad, and not very bight. Ponies are taught in school that the unicorns can read minds and fry ponies with laser beams from their horns. One of the parents is a war profiteer whose motto is “To be scared is to be prepared.” She dismisses calls for friendship and cooperation as “hugs and cupcakes.” Terrifying the ponies is good for her business. Another parent is a tyrannical ruler who lies to her people, telling them that she and her daughters have retained the magical powers the rest have lost. When she is found out she is derided as “phony pony full of baloney.” A law enforcement officer abuses his power. The only kind and loving adult is dead (subtly and off-screen, but absent and missed). Also, because this is 2021, one of the characters is a social media influencer, another is a hipster, and there is some hip-hop.

So, there’s a lot going on here for an animated movie about magical horse creatures. I am not sure whether this film is a reflection of the divisiveness of our times or a response to it. I do know that either way, despite the touchy times, no adults should feel criticized or diminished. Instead, they should recognize that the only message here is the real magic of trust, understanding, cooperation, and generosity.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild peril and references to bigotry, and subtle references to the loss of a parent. The adult characters are ineffectual, tyrannical or scaremongering.

Family discussion: When have you been a good friend? When have you learned that what you thought or feared turned out not to be true? How should the characters respond to the queen’s lie? How sneaky are you?

If you like this, try: the other “My Little Pony” movies and the television series — and the episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” where special guest Bill Clinton aces an MLP quiz.

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Posted on August 31, 2021 at 12:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, martial arts, weapons, explosions, monsters, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 3, 2021

(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel’s first Asian superhero gets an exciting, heartfelt origin story in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” The character first appeared in 1973, created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, inspired by the television series “Kung Fu,” and the career of Bruce Lee, which had created a great interest in Chinese martial arts. In the comics, he was originally the son of the already-established ultra-villain Fu Manchu.

In this version, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is the son of Wenwu (Chinese acting legend Tony Leung), who uses the power of 10 magic rings to cause massive death, destruction, and pillage over centuries. After they fight as she defends her community from his invasion, Wenwu falls in love with Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and for a time they have a peaceful life together, until she is murdered by Wenwu’s enemies.

Shang-Chi and his sister (Meng’er Zhang as Xialing) are raised to be warriors, knowing nothing of their father’s past. After his mother’s death and his discovery of his father’s evil actions, Shang-Chi runs away, as far as he can get from his home and family. He is working in San Francisco as a parking valet under the name Sean with his best friend Katy (the indispensable Awkwafina). They are both low key slackers who ar enjoying their lives when trouble tracks Shang-Chi down on an articulated bus, the kind with two parts connected by an accordion-like pivoting joint. In other words, it is just the place for a wow of a fight scene, and a wow is what we get. Keep an eye on the combatant with a steel blade prosthetic on his arm. That is the aptly named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) and we’ll be seeing a lot more of him.

The script, by director Destin Daniel Cretton along with Andrew Lanham and Dave Callaham gives emotional weight to the action with its focus on the family conflicts, especially the struggle — sometimes emotional, sometimes physical — between father and son. But first, Shang-Chi reunites with his estranged sister, involving a cage fight with a monster. Ultimately, it brings him home in a literal and emotional sense as he returns to the land his mother once guarded so bravely, Ta Lo. It is a place of peace and gentility, with the entire community devoted to keeping a powerful, evil creature imprisoned there. Wenwu’s original attack on Ta Lo was to release the monster. And now he returns, in part because one of the creature’s powers is to call out to powerful people who could release it in the voice of someone they loved and lost.

Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy find themselves back in Ta Lo, where their late mother’s sister Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) helps them create a defense to protect their home and prevent the release of the monster, leading up to a final confrontation that will involve emotional growth, strengthened connections, and a lot of marital arts fighting. Plus a monster.

The action scenes are exciting and revealing of character and the performances are excellent, especially Leung, who makes a complicated and sometimes inconsistent character layered and — for a supervillain — real. I am, as ever, impressed with Marvel’s Kevin Feige for his willingness to allow each of the Marvel characters to appear in distinctive stories across a range of tones and genres and yet somehow make them all feel like part of the same world. Shang-Chi is a welcome addition to the MCU and I look forward to seeing him interact with the other characters as they take on whatever and whoever is threatening the planet next.

Parents should know that this film has extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence with a lot of martial arts action, chases, explosions, monsters, weapons, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: Why did Shang-Chi and Xialing respond differently to their childhood experiences? Why was she so angry with him?

If you like this, try: the other Avengers origin movies including “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man,” and “Captain America”

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Nine Days

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:29 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School

Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2021
One of the most loved passages in English literature is in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” when a young mother who has died in childbirth has returned from a brief visit back to her life on Earth. She sadly realizes that no one living can truly appreciate the true pleasures of life on earth. That is partly because we are too busy worrying about what other people think of us and how we can buy some thing or achieve some goal that might impress them or worrying that someone might be more successful to notice the true bounty and beauty all around us. “Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers,” she says. “And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” “No, Saints and poets maybe…they do some,” is the answer.

It is poets like Wilder who not only realize life, but help us to have moments of realizing it, too, and in “Nine Days,” first-time writer/director Edson Oda gives us an Emily-like reminder with a mystical allegory about souls who are applying for life on Earth. They are hoping to be deemed worthy so they can have a chance to not quite notice the clocks and the bread while they worry about all the things that people worry about. Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, both so striking in heightened featured roles in comic book movies (“Black Panther” and “Deadpool”) are never less than extraordinary here, with subtle, complex performances that tells everything not just about their characters but about the world they are in. They make the allegory real, human, and utterly compelling and their final scene will live in my heart always.

Production designer Dan Hermansen and costume designer Fernando Rodriguez provide a setting that is at once strange and familiar. A house in a remote setting has a retro feel. Duke plays Will, whose wire rim glasses, suspenders, bow tie, and sweater vests give him an old-school academic vibe. And he seems to be a scholar, carefully studying and archiving videotapes that are playing on a bank of screens. We see lives from the point of view of the person whose story is being told, only glimpsing their faces when they look into a mirror or are reflected in a window.

Hands reach into a crib to cuddle a baby. Birthday candles are blown out. School bullies insult a classmate. One of particular interest is a young woman who is a gifted violinist. Will is visited by a neighbor (Benedict Wong as Kyo). We get a sense that they are friends but there is a difference in their status and experience, and we learn more about that later. But not a lot more. This movie is comfortable with ambiguity, allowing us to fill in the spaces.

Kyo and Will are looking forward to something special. The young violinist is going to perform. But there is a tragic loss, and Will is shaken. Later, a woman knocks on his door. She seems to be there for some sort of job interview. And it becomes clear that she, and a small group of others, are there to interview for the job of — being born on earth, in comfortable, supportive circumstances. The candidates, who will have up to nine days to complete a series of tests, include characters played by Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, and Beetz, as the warmest and most curious of the group. As Will tells them, their senses are dulled. When they get the news they will not be accepted, they are given a chance to live one experience that is especially meaningful for them. It is similar to “After Life,” a Korean film given four stars by Roger Ebert, but in this case the experience they will have is borrowed from someone else’s life.

The setting and the details are fascinating and provocative, though anyone who has ever lived on earth could only wish there were some tests for judgment and morality before allowing a soul to be born. What makes the film so enthralling, though, are the rich, complex, sensitive performances that make each character real and and, yes, alive, and the questions you will ask yourself later about how you would respond to Will’s tests and what you can do to better appreciate the life we have.

Parents should know that this film deals with issues of life and death, and there is a suicide. Characters have intense experiences and some confrontations.

Family discussion: What do these tests determine? Why is the character named Will? What does his experience as a human bring to his job that Kyo cannot?

If you like this, try; “After Life,” “Defending Your Life,” and “Soul”

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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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