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

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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Ralph Breaks the Internet

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action/cartoon-style peril and chase scenes, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

I’ve got to warn you — you’re going to need to see this movie at least twice. And I’ve got good news for you — it is well worth it. The sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” is “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and just like the Internet itself it is bursting with endless enticing distractions. But in the midst of all that is also a wise and warmhearted story with endearing characters. And it is a rare comedy that understands it is not enough to refer to a specific cultural touchstone; it has to have something to say about it. What it does have to say is so shrewd and funny it may merit a third viewing.

“Wreck-it Ralph” was about characters in old-fashioned video arcade games, the kind they used to have before we had laptops and phones that we could play games on. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is not exactly the bad guy but the menace in his very old-school game. All he does is break things that are repaired (if the game player is successful) by Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer). He ends up visiting some newer games, including a military first-person shooter game and a racing game called Sugar Rush, with the cars made of candy. There he meets a brash little girl with a pixel-shaking “glitch” named Vanellope. The happy ending resolves various issues and Ralph and Vanellope end up friends.

As this movie begins, everything seems to be going fine. Ralph is very happy meeting up with Vanellope every night after the arcade closes to talk about, well, everything. But the arcade owner (Ed O’Neill) is upgrading. “What is wiffy?” Ralph wants to know. That would be Wifi. And the next thing they know, Ralph and Vanellope are whisked into the big, wild world of the Internet and like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland and the Pevensies in Narnia, they will have many thrilling adventures and meet many astonishing characters before they find their way home. The characters’ idea of what home and friendship mean will be changed, shifted, or enlarged by their experience, one of the film’s most thoughtful elements.

But on the way there we have so much fun seeing the most familiar — and some of the most frustrating — elements of the digital world reflected and personified, and writer/directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore take advantage of Disney’s unsurpassed line-up of characters to fill the movie with surprising and hilarious cameos. The highlight is the funniest scene you will see at the movies this year, when Vanellope ends up in a room with the Disney princesses (almost all with the original voice talent). What’s great about this is that Johnston and Moore are the rare filmmakers who know that referring to a cultural icon is not enough; you have to say something about it. And what they have to say about the princesses strikes the perfect balance between affection and irony. No more waiting for a prince to come. These sisters are doing it for themselves. Also stopping to sing by water at some point, though.

The film is not just smart about culture, digital and IRL. It is smart about people, and especially about our fears and insecurities. It’s a rare film for children that goes beyond “friends are great!” and explores the delicate negotiations of relationships between people who may have different ideas about what they want. A wise man taught me a long time ago that everyone has different tolerance levels for ambiguity and that each of us has different tolerances for ambiguity across a wide range of categories. Someone can be comfortable taking big risks in one area, but not another. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has a deep understanding that even adults will find illuminating. Plus, it is a ton of fun and if you stay ALL the way to the end there is one more sly joke.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/video game-style peril and violence, chases, crashes, no one seriously hurt, and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: How are Ralph and Vanellope alike and how are they different? Which is your favorite Disney princess and why? What is your favorite thing about the Internet?

If you like this, try: “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia”

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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

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 Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Posted on October 31, 2018 at 8:04 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild peril
Profanity: Some mild languages
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, swords, falls, no one hurt, characters grieving sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is a beautiful empty mess of a movie. The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas and costumes by Jenny Beavan are genuinely enchanting. Disney is a modern-day Medici, giving work to the world’s top artisans and the look of the film is gorgeously imagined. But boy, it’s like a fabulously wrapped gift that once you remove the ribbons and paper turns out to be nothing but an empty box. Ultimately, the visuals are so sumptuous and look-at-me that they overwhelm the story.

It is inspired, of course, by the classic ballet, which, let’s all admit, is not much of a story, based on a 200 year old tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann about a young girl named Clara who defeats an evil mouse king with the help of a nutcracker who comes to life. It’s just there to provide an excuse to play the one of the most beloved orchestral pieces of all time, the celestial Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite and to perform the now-classic dances. Half of the Nutcracker is just a performance put on for Clara by dolls and toys of different nationalities.

Almost as well-loved as the ballet, a perennial holiday favorite, is the sequence in Disney’s “Fantasia” (which premiered in 1940, four years before the first US performance of the Nutcracker ballet). Fish swim sinuously to the Arabian Dance music, and fairies bring winter to the forest to Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. But what everyone remembers best is the mushrooms dancing to the Chinese section, one tiny mushroom racing to keep up.

In this version, Clara (Mackenzie Foy, struggling with her English accent and struggling even more with a story that veers from dull to wha??) is the middle child in family in mourning following the death of the mother. It is their first Christmas without her, and they are all feeling lost. Clara’s father (Matthew Macfadyen) tells the children that their mother left them each a gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, a favorite ball gown for her older sister, toy soldiers for her younger brother, and for Clara an intricate egg-shaped box without the key to unlock it. The note says that everything Clara needs is inside.

Clara, like her mother, is a gifted mechanical engineer (she amuses her brother with a clever Rube Goldbergian contraption that deserves more of a payoff later, but the filmmakers do not appear to be paying much attention or expecting us to be, either). So, at the very fancy Christmas Eve party where her father’s primary concern is that Clara dance with him “because everyone expects it,” Clara does just what he told her not to do — she sneaks off to find the host, her godfather (Morgan Freeman, in an eyepatch), who is ignoring the guests and tinkering in his workroom. She thinks he might have a key. And of course in a way, he does.

The next thing we know, Clara has been led to a mysterious Oz/Narnia-like enchanted land, where a mouse steals the key and she chases after him. With the help of a nutcracker come to life (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she learns some secrets about her mother and has to save the day from the evil character who wants to dominate the four realms. Believe me, you don’t need to understand this part. You probably don’t want to, either.

There are some references to “Fantasia,” including an image of a conductor and orchestra directly taken from the film. But why put the red mushrooms in the forest if they aren’t going to dance? Why bring in James Newton Howard to create a new score when it is definitively impossible to improve on Tchaikovsky? And why why why relegate Misty Copeland (mostly) to a credit sequence after the movie is over? The ballet scenes are frustratingly short, while chase scenes and PG-level action take far too much time.

Director Lasse Hallström, known for warm-hearted, deeply sympathetic films like “My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “Cider House Rules” had to leave the film for another project, and it was finished by Joe Johnston, known for skill with special effects stories like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” and “Jumanji.” This may explain a disjointed tone, particularly with one character whose transformation is fine as a matter of plot but jarringly wrong in tone that takes us completely out of the movie. It is lovely to have a fantasy film with a girl who has courage and agency, but the way it handles its themes of loss are disjointed as well, with a truly jarring disparity in the treatment of Clara and the rest of her family and slightly creepy suggestions about the way the girls make up to their father for the loss of their mother and about how evil and (mild) sexuality (double entendres) are linked.

This movie would be a lot better if it had fewer realms and better writers.

Parents should know that this is too intense for little ones, with scary soldiers, peril and some violence, swords, falls (no one hurt) and characters mourning a sad death of a parent.

Family discussion: What did the note from Clara’s mother mean? What made Clara different from her brother and sister? What made her change her mind about Mother Ginger? How do Clara and Sugar Plum respond differently to the loss of someone they loved?

If you like this, try: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Labyrinth”

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Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Posted on October 12, 2018 at 1:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style fantasy/mild horror peril and violence, creepy creatures. boo-scares
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2018

Copyright 2018 Columbia
My review of Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is on rogerebert.com.

The first “Goosebumps” movie was a lot of fun, with Jack Black playing real-life author R.L. Stine, whose hundreds of spooky-fun books for tweens have sold hundred of millions of copies. This sequel, with only a brief appearance by Black, is blander, with lower-wattage talent on and behind the screen. But the special effects are still top-notch and it is a pleasant little scare-fest for the Halloween season.

Parents should know that this film includes extended spooky-scary content with scary monsters, ghosts, witches, boo-scares, peril, action/cartoon-style peril and violence, some potty humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which is the scariest monster in the movie? Why do people like scary movies?

If you like this, try: “Monster House” and “Paranorman” and the Goosebumps books and first film

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