Despicable Me 4

Despicable Me 4

Posted on July 2, 2024 at 7:44 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action sequences and some rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/comic peril and violence, no one badly hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2024

The latest entry in the DCU (Despicable Cinematic Universe), which includes the Minions movies, continues the saga of the once-despicable Gru (Steve Carell) with the same level of visual invention and endearing characters, plus action that strikes a kid-friendly balance between exciting and silly.

Gru is now a loving father to his three adopted daughters and his new baby with his wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig). And he is proudly working with the AVL (Anti-Villain League). As the movie begins, Gru attends a class of 1985 reunion at his boarding school alma mater, the Lycée Pas Bon (School of the Not Good). He is not there to catch up with old friends; he is there to capture one of the world’s worst bad guys, the French-accented Maxime de Mal (last name means “of Bad,” voiced by Will Ferrell). Maxime is dating the glamorous, Spanish-accented Valentina (Sofía Vergara), with a sleek ponytail, stiletto heels, and a fluffy lapdog. He is very competitive with Gru for a reason we will learn later. And he has a surprise for his fellow alumnae. He has figured out a way to turn himself into a semi-cockroach, as he tells us, the world’s most indestructible and unstoppable creature.

After quite a scuffle, Gru and the AVL capture Maxime. But he escapes from prison, vowing revenge. The AVL moves Gru and his family to a safe house in a community called Mayflower, assigning them all new identities and names to protect them, and bringing most of the minions to AVL headquarters. They create a lot of chaos and some of them test out a new serum and develop super-powers that they have some trouble adapting to.

The next door neighbors are snobbish Perry (Stephen Colbert), his honey-voiced wife Patsy (“SNL’s” Chloe Fineman), and their young daughter, Poppy (Joey King), an aspiring villain who quickly discovers Gru’s real identity and blackmails him into helping her with a daring heist. Meanwhile, Maxime and Valentina are coming after Gru’s family in a cockroach-shaped plane.

The storyline is cluttered, with a lot of characters and locations, but that means none of it is around long enough to get tedious. Still, it is a shame to give so little time to the girls in favor of the baby. As with the other films, number 4 (six if you count the two Minions movies) is filled with delightful visual jokes and details, including some for the parents, or perhaps the grandparents (Gru in Boy George attire, singing “Karma Chameleon,” a “Terminator 2” reference). Glimpsing some of the series’ earlier villains at the end is a reminder that Maxime is second-tier compared to Vector, Belle, and Scarlet, and, like “Kung Fu Panda 4,” it seems to be transitioning to a new central character for future entries in the series. That is a wise move. Carell is still terrific, but we could use a bit more despicability in the next chapter.

Parents should know that this movie has extended fantasy/comic action sequences with weapons and characters in peril, including an infant, that may be too intense for younger kids. The movie includes a lot of exaggerated bad behavior and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Why do some of these characters want to be bad and how are they bad in different ways? Why was Margo worried about making new friends? Was Agnes right not to lie about her name?

If you like this, try: the other movies in the “Despicable Me” series, including the two “Minions” films, and some songs by Culture Club and Tears for Fears

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IF

IF

Posted on May 15, 2024 at 2:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rate PG for thematic elements and mild language
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death and illness of parents, injured child
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2024

Classic movie fans will immediately recognize a brief clip watched by one of the characters in “IF.” It is James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey,” a gentle fantasy about a man who is the only one who can see a tall invisible rabbit-looking creature called a pooka, named Harvey. Later in that film, when a doctor tries to assess his mental capacity, Dowd says, “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” Another touchstone for the film is that moment, more heartbreaking for parents than children, when Bing Bong dissolves in Pixar’s “Inside Out.” Writer/director/star John Krasinski says he made “IF” because he realized his daughters were on the cusp of that end of childhood when imagination is real to them. The movie’s poignance will be felt most acutely by parents, aware of their own fleeting moments of magic as children and, while looking forward to the milestones of their own children, missing the magic and even the exhaustion of the early years.

The title “IF” mostly stands for “Invisible Friend,” but also a little bit stands for the word we use to conjure up infinite possibilities. The world Krasinski has conjured up here is beguiling, with a handmade, retro feel. The Paramount logo at the beginning looks like a child’s finger-painting and the movie itself is a smudgy valentine, all heart, whimsy, and charm. If the message is a bit messy and the logic not quite sound, for me that was more than made up for by the tenderness.

It takes place in present-day-ish, no cell phones, no internet searches, an apartment building and apartment decor that dates back to the 40s or 50s. The soundtrack includes some classic songs, played on, stay with me kids, a vinyl record on a Victor Victrola with a trumpet horn, like they made a hundred years ago. Cal wears suspenders and a hat that’s vintage, not hipster. The light is soft. And there is a beguiling enchanted amusement park on the beach.

Cailey Fleming is lovely as Bea, a 12-year-old girl staying with her grandmother (the always-wonderful Fiona Shaw, a long way from Harry Potter’s aunt) while her dad joke-aficionado father (Krasinski) is in the hospital. As we see early on, Bea’s adored mother died when she was young, so her father’s illness is hitting her very hard. When her grandmother tries to welcome her into the apartment she once shared with both parents by offering her the paints she used to enjoy, Bea stiffly says she is too told for them now.

She goes for a walk and sees what she thinks might be a girl her age. But she is not. Bea discovers that Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is an imaginary friend who looks like a girl-sized talking butterfly, who lives in an apartment in the same building where Bea is staying, with Cal (Ryan Reynolds) and Blue (Steve Carrell) a gigantic, fluffy purple imaginary friend with a sweet, goofy smile. Cal explains that there are a lot of imaginary friends who have been outgrown by the children who created them. Cal and Blossom are trying to find new children for the abandoned imaginary friends, so they don’t disappear. Bea is captivated by the idea and volunteers to help.

Krasinski assembled an all-star cast to provide voices for the amusingly varied group of imaginary friends, including George Clooney as an astronaut, Bradley Cooper as an ice cube, Emily Blunt as a unicorn, Awkwafina as a bubble, and the late Louis Gossett, Jr. as a bear named Lewis. Cal, Bea, and Lewis interview the IFs to try to match them up with children who share their interests and need their skills. But it turns out that may not be the answer they are looking for. The one they find will be as reassuring to kids as it is to parents.

Parents should know that, as in many stories with children at the center, this one begins with a sad loss of a parent. And her remaining parent is also ill. and in the hospital for surgery.

Family discussion: What stories do you like to tell? Which IF is your favorite and why? What IF will you imagine?

If you like this, try: “Inside Out” and “Tuck Everlasting”

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Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Posted on March 21, 2024 at 12:07 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for supernatural action/violence, language and suggestive references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended supernatural peril and violence, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Copyright Sony 2024

The latest installment of the now four-decades-long saga of the intrepid, firehouse-based, three-generation funny, scary, and then funny again and then scary/funny crew who capture ghosts is much better than the wobbly reboot, with plenty to delight both long-time fans and newcomers. Those who love the original 1984 will be happy to see the more-than-cameos returns of original stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts. Walter Peck, the mean-spirited non-believer from the EPA in the first film, is now the mayor, played once again by William Atherton. And some of the ghosts from the original are back, too, including tiny little Stay-Puff guys. And yes, there will be slime.

And, yay, they’re back in New York City! The contrast between the gritty, cynical, material reality of the city and the supernatural images is an essential element of this franchise.

Gary (Rudd) is no longer an unhappy single science teacher; he is happily in a warm, loving, supportive relationship with Callie Spengler (Coon) the daughter of the character played by the late Harold Ramis in the first film, and they are full-time ghostbusters, back in that firehouse, still very cool with the firehouse pole and the tricked-out hearse vehicle. Rudd and Coon have an easy chemistry that adds a quiet counterbalance to the wilder elements of the story.

The kids are older. Trevor (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard) keeps reminding Gary and Callie that he is 18, but they are not ready to make him a full part of the group. And brainiac Phoebe (McKenna Grace) is still the one who is on top of all the science and engineering but still only 15. Mean mayor Peck threatens Gary and Callie with prosecution for violation of child labor and neglect laws if they allow her to participate in ghost-busting. Gary cares about Trevor and Phoebe but has not figured out how best to relate to them. He wants them to like him so much that he is not comfortable taking on more of a parental role.

The other two young characters just happen to have found their way from Oklahoma to New York City so they can stay in the story. Lucky (a charming Celeste O’Connor) is working at a ghost-investigating lab funded by now-billionaire Winston Zeddemore (Hudson). And Podcast (Logan Kim) is working for OG ghostbuster Ray (Aykroyd), who now runs a curio shop that’s a kind of “Antiques Roadshow” for artifacts containing spirits and demons.

One of those items is a sphere brought to the shop by a low-level slacker named Nadeem Razmaadi (a very funny Kumail Nanjiani) in a box of items from his late grandmother. Like the fast-deteriorating ghost containment and storage unit in the fire station, the sphere has kept inside a terrifying spirit who kills people with ice. You know where this is going.

There will be consultation with experts, including Murray returning as Peter Venkman and New York Public Library expert in ancient languages Hubert Wartzki (Patton Oswalt). There will be confrontations with ghosts we’ve met before and new ones, including a swamp dragon and a lonely teenage chess champion named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), who bonds with Phoebe when she is feeling abandoned by being told she has to wait three years before she can go back to work.

As the title suggests, and as the Robert Frost poem at the beginning of the movie underscores, this movie’s villain controls ice, which juts out from the ground like spiky frozen stalagmites. The ghosts and special effect and action are all entertaining, the humor keeps things bouncing along, the fan service is ample but not intrusive, and, well, ghost-bustin’ makes me feel good.

Parents should know that this movie has extended and sometimes disturbing supernatural peril, horror, and violence. There are some graphic images and jump scares. Characters use some strong language and there is some crude humor. A character makes a reference her family dying in a fire.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Gary to be firm with Trevor and Phoebe? What did Phoebe like about Melody? Do you think there are ghosts like the ones in the film? What do you think is the meaning of the famous Robert Frost poem at the beginning of the movie?

If you like this try: the other “Ghostbuster” films, especially the original and the 2016 version with female ghostbusters played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon, and a very, very funny Chris Hemsworth.

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Kung Fu Panda 4

Kung Fu Panda 4

Posted on March 7, 2024 at 6:33 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images and some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style peril and martial arts fight scenes
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2024
Date Released to DVD: April 25, 2024

Skidoosh! Jack Black returns as Po in the fourth chapter of the saga about the big-hearted panda who has become a kung fu master with the title of Dragon Warrior, and earned the gratitude of his community and the respect of his colleagues, the Furious Five. If you don’t know who they are, don’t worry; they are briefly seen and not heard (very expensive voice talent) in this film.

But there’s plenty of top-level voice talent anyway, with Dustin Hoffman returning as the red panda Master Shifu, Viola Davis as The Chameleon, Black’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” co-star Awkwafina as a fox named Zhen. Also returning are Po’s two dads, his adoptive father, the excitable Mr. Ping (James Hong) and the cuddly and fearful Li (Bryan Cranston), now close friends.

A brief prologue shows the return of the first villain Po defeated, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), apparently escaped from the spirit world determined “to take what is mine, which is everything that is yours.”

Po is happy as the movie begins. He is respected and beloved in his community and welcomes customers to Mr. Ping’s expanded restaurant. He signs autographs and poses for pictures (created with a paintbrush). He has accepted the staff of wisdom from Master Shifu without really thinking about what it means — that it is time for him to ascend to the next level, “passing on wisdom and inspiring hope,” and select a successor Dragon Warrior. Po is proud of achieving that title and reluctant to let it go. When he meditates on a new Dragon Warrior, his mind quickly moves from “inner peace” to “dinner, please.”

Tai Lung has not returned. That was an even more dangerous villain, The Chameleon, a shapeshifter with powerful magic. Po meets Zhen, a thief and a liar who grew up on the streets of Juniper City. She promises to bring him to The Chameleon. But can she be trusted?

This fourth chapter meets or exceeds the vibrance and heart of the first three films. The animation is superb, with outstandingly imagined settings, camera angles, styles, and action scenes. The gentle exploration of the conflicting feelings about growing up is sensitive and insightful. Awkwafina is, as always, funny and endearing in her portrayal of a character who is seeing what it means to be trustworthy and kind for the first time. The Chameleon, marvelously designed, with voice by Davis, is an excellent villain, imperious, steely, and ruthless. And there are a number of funny supporting characters, including Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan as the leader of the underground lair of thieves, and a trio of deceptively cute but secretly bloodthirsty little creatures. The balance between action and humor is just right, with a very funny bulls in a china shop moment and a precariously balanced tavern. And Po is, as always, an appealing hero, always on the side of helping others but still with more to learn.

Parents should know that this film includes extended action- and cartoon-style scenes of martial arts peril and violence, some schoolyard language (“screwed up,” etc.), and references to orphanhood and neglect. Some families may be sensitive to the portrayal of an adopted character who is equally devoted to his biological and adoptive father.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: the other “Kung Fu Panda” movies and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” with Black and Awkwafina

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Lisa Frankenstein

Lisa Frankenstein

Posted on February 8, 2024 at 12:43 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violent content, sexual assault|, language, bloody Images, sexual material, teen drinking, and drug content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters brutally killed, character sees her mother killed by an ax murderer, re-animated corpse, mutilation, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Lisa Frankenstein Copyright 2024 Focus

An uneven mash-up of 80s teen comedy and horror wisely relies on the terrific Kathryn Newton as the title character, a high school girl whose mother was hacked to death by an ax murderer. Her father quickly remarried and they have moved in with her new stepmother, Janet (Carla Gugino), and step-sister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), a sunny-spirited cheerleader.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody famously began her film, “Jennifer’s Body,” with Amanda Seyfried saying, “Hell is a teenage girl.” That is the theme of that film, this film, and even her sweet, beloved screenplay for “Juno.” “Lisa Frankenstein’s” best moments are the ones that play off of the idea that horror and high school are a lot closer than we like to admit. So when Lisa falls for a re-animated corpse of a 19th century musician who died young, she matter-of-factly explains to him that Taffy told her it’s a mistake to try to change a boy, so she is just going to accept him the way he is, rotted, foul-smelling flesh and all.

Well, she does clean him off. When he first staggers into her house, covered with mud from the grave, he looks like a golem. And he does not speak. Cole Sprouse plays a character who is just identified in the credits as “the Creature” (an allusion, like the title, to the original Frankenstein story — remember, Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster). He worked with a mime to make his non-verbal character as expressive as possible. Once the mud is washed off, as he becomes physically and emotionally re-connected to the world of the living, he gives us a sense of who he was and what he is feeling.

Newton, who memorably starred in the body-switching horror comedy “Freaky,” playing a high school girl whose body is occupied by the 6’5″ deranged serial killed played by Vince Vaughn, brings just the right tone to Lisa, who begins the story still shell-shocked from the loss of her mother and her new home with the superficially welcoming Janet and the just plain superficial Taffy. She finds it comforting to visit the abandoned cemetery in the woods, and that is where she see the grave of the Creature, with the handsome bust on the headstone. She whispers that she wishes she was with him, and somehow that calls him to her. Luckily, her after-school job doing repairs in a dry cleaning ship has given her sewing skills that will come in handy when it turns out the Creature needs some replacement body parts.

Williams relies too heavily on 80s references to make her points. Those who did not come of age in that era will not have the instant emotional connection (or laugh) she is hoping for. The opening credits are a witty mash-up of 80s-era Lisa Frank designs and Victorian silhouette animation. It is a lot of fun to see Newton as Lisa become confident and brave, rocking those 80s, Madonna-influenced outfits, the 80s songs still hold up, and it is entertaining to see some switch-ups on the usual rom-com tropes. It’s the Creature who gets the trying-on-clothes sequence, for example. First-time feature director Zelda Williams (the daughter of Robin Williams) has some strong ideas but the tone wobbles when it tries to straddle.

Parents should know that this is a horror movie and many characters are murdered in a gory manner. It includes sexual references and teen partying.

Family discussion: What 80s touches are most important in this movie? Why was Lisa so drawn to the abandoned cemetery? What do you like best about horror movies?

If you like this, try: “Freaky” and “Young Frankenstein”

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