Missing Link

Posted on April 11, 2019 at 5:14 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some mild rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 12, 2019

Copyright 2019 LAIKA Studios
The latest from stop-motion animation masters LAIKA studios is “Missing Link,” another astonishing leap forward with spectacularly gorgeous settings and characters so subtly expressive that the animators are as much a part of the performances as the outstanding voice talent. With less of the sadness-tinged depth of the four previous LAIKA films, “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Box Trolls,” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Missing Link” has more silly humor and a grander scope of adventure. The previous films were unusual both in bringing themes of loss, grief, death, and depression into films for families as they were in the high-touch textures of the made, not digitized world. This one is more conventional in its narrative, for the first time with adults (if some immature ones) as the lead characters. Like all of the others, it is stunningly beautiful and gorgeously realized.

It is the story of a time when the combined innocence, ambition, and hubris we may now think of as privilege meant that gentlemen had a certain noblesse oblige that led to undertakings falling somewhere between audacious and downright crazy. We will see a fact-based movie about perhaps the most downright crazy later this year in “The Professor and the Madman,” with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn as two of the men behind the Oxford English dictionary, working for decades to document every single word in the English language. This was an era when an educated, if not exactly employed, gentleman was expected to be as curious and knowledgable about nature as about poetry. For these men, the world, especially the undocumented world, was one great big museum, laboratory, encyclopedia, and, we have to admit it, playground to be colonized, captured, pillaged, and otherwise grabbed. And then of course they came home so they could brag about it in their tony, mahogany-paneled, leather-chair furnished, and very, very, very exclusive clubs.

Hugh Jackman provides the voice for Sir Lionel Frost, a fearless adventurer who is on a quest for scientific discovery but also for recognition. He wants very much to be accepted by the tony Optimates Club. “Optimates” means “best ones,” and, as is so often the case, for the men in the club that means they pride themselves on keeping out anyone they do not consider “best.”

We first see Lionel trying to document the Loch Ness monster, so intrepid himself that he is unable to notice the extreme distress of his sidekick, who gets chomped as Lionel is ordering him to take a photograph. That relationship ends quickly. But Lionel gets a letter that he thinks will lead him to membership in the Optimates at last — someone wants him to find the elusive Bigfoot/Sasquatch creature, the possible missing link between apes and humans.

And it turns out that someone is Bigfoot himself, or, as he will soon be known, Susan (voice of Zach Galifianakis). Susan is the last of his kind, and he needs the help of an experienced adventurer to take him to his nearest relations, the Yeti in the mountains of Asia. Their goals are different. Lionel wants the triumph and fame of being known as the one to find Bigfoot. And he wants the Optimates Club to let him in. Can he do that and keep Susan safe?

The journey begins, from one breathtaking vista to the next. Please, see this film for the first of what I expect will be multiple viewings, on a very big screen. It will knock you out.

Lionel needs a map, which means he has to contact Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of his romantic and adventuring rival. She is every bit as brave as her husband, and joins the expedition. They go from one spectacular location to another. The fact that the characters are real-world dolls or puppets and that the environments around them are all built with meticulous attention to the tiniest of details, each frame of the 24 frames per second film shot individually makes the world of the story especially inviting, immersive, and tactile. You could spend all day watching it over and over and you still would not see how the tiny flutter of a leaf as an elephant passes by makes the world of the film so real, but subliminally it helps to create not just an authenticity of the physical world but the kind of authenticity only the vision of true artisans with endless commitment and creativity can make come to life.

Susan’s group is being tracked by Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by the head of the Optimates Club to stop them. This conflict is the weaker part of the film. The theme of what groups we want or should want to be a part of and what groups want us to be a part of them is a fine one, but it is far from unexplored, especially in family movies, and does not have the nuanced portrayal we have come to expect from LAIKA. The ending is a bit abrupt, suggesting a possible mid-course change of direction in the midst of the painstaking filming process.

But the adventure, engaging chemistry between Susan and Lionel, and easy-going humor keep things moving along, with the Missing Link teaching the man something about what humanity. It is telling that when someone needs to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an elderly woman, Lionel’s first thought is to make Susan do it and Susan’s first concern is to make sure his breath does not offend. The real star here is the visuals, from vast, breathtaking vistas to genuine emotion in the subtlest facial expression, are an extraordinary achievement. As always I look forward to whatever LAIKA does next.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and some violence (no one seriously hurt) and some potty humor and mild language.

Family discussion: How did Lionel change his mind about what was important? What will Adelina do next?

If you like this, try: the other LAIKA films and two other Bigfoot movies for families, “Smallfoot” and “Harry and the Hendersons”

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Captain Marvel

Posted on March 7, 2019 at 5:55 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language
Profanity: Some brief language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero violence and peril, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2019

Copyright 2019 Disney
I often say that superhero movies depend on the quality of the villain. A small amendment — sometimes it depends on a cat. And the cat in this movie, named Goose for reasons we will discuss later, is a delight in this very entertaining Marvel film, making way for the upcoming “Avengers: Endgame” and for the first time giving a female superhero a starring role.

Oscar-winner Brie Larson plays the title character, though that is not her title in the film. She does not have a rank or a superhero name. In fact, she is not sure what her actual name is. The Captain Marvel character has appeared in different forms in comic books over the years, mostly male. So even the most deeply committed fanboys and fangirls may not come to this film with a detailed backstory in mind, though fans of the comics will have some quibbles with this adaptation anyway. We meet this character as she meets herself. At first, she is known as Vers, a member of an elite fighting force of a race called the Kree, with a sensei/mentor/commanding officer named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who trades avuncular quips and punches with her in training sessions.

The Kree are lead by a God-like entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who is to complex to be comprehended in its true form. So it appears to each person (if I can call the Kree “persons” since they appear human) in whatever form is most meaningful to him or her. To Vers, the Supreme Intelligence appears as Annette Bening in a leather jacket, as it might to any of us, when you come to think of it.

The mortal enemies of the Kree are the Skrull, a lizard-like race with the ability to shape-shift so that they are indistinguishable from any living being, down to the DNA. Their leader is played by Ben Mendelsohn, for once using his real-life Aussie accent, a great choice for a character who is not the usual super-villain. Speaking of which, the usual super-villain, Ronan (Lee Pace) does make an appearance.

When the Kree are ambushed by the Skrull, Vers escapes to another planet, which turns out to be Earth in 1995. Her rocket crashes into a Blockbuster video store, which makes sense because there was one on just about every corner back then.

And you know who was also around back then? A young Nick Fury and Agent Colson played by digitally airbrushed Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg. Fury has a full head of hair and two working eyes. He does not believe that the young woman described by a witness as “dressed for laser tag” is from another planet. What she is wearing is her Kree military jumpsuit, until she lifts a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and some ripped jeans from a mannequin.

Soon Vers and Fury (he says even his mother calls him “Fury”) are on the road, trying to get the whatsit to keep it away from the whosit (avoiding spoilers here), picking up Goose the cat along the way, as Vers begins to remember the life she once had on Earth, a military pilot named Carol Danvers, with a mentor who turns out to be…a scientist/engineer played by Annette Bening. Carol also had a difficult childhood (played as a young girl by the gifted Mckenna Grace) and a devoted friend, a single mother who was also a pilot (Lashana Lynch, both tough and warm-hearted as Maria Rambeau).

Carol’s name-tag broke in the accident that wiped out her memory. The Kree only saw the half that read “Vers,” which they used as her new name, because apparently the Kree can read the English language alphabet, but that’s okay because they can also breathe our air and look like humans, so just go with it. When she begins to literally put the pieces together, she begins to tap into her real power, not just the ability to shoot super-powerful photon beams out of her fists, but her determination, courage, and integrity.

Carol and Maria have a real need for speed “Top Gun” need-for-speed vibe, which explains the cat’s name, a tribute to the Anthony Edwards character in the film. And Carol’s grunge look and riot grrrl outlook fit in well with the 90’s references in the film, the songs on the soundtrack, of course, but also the technology that feels like it is from the era of the Flintstones, like dial-up modems, the Alta Vista search engine, and pagers.

Larson is fine, especially in her easy banter with Jackson, but the character is a bit bland. In one of the movie’s climactic moments, the question of exactly what her powers are and who controls them is fluffed in a way that removes some of the dramatic tension. But the movie has a couple of clever twists that keeps it involving, with some pointed but never pushy references to refugees and how we learn who to trust as we learn who we are. Props to Marvel, though, for not giving us a love story, as it would just be a distraction. Plus, we get to discover why the Fury of our era wears an eye-patch and Jackson gives one of his most natural and charming performances ever, making Goose a close second as the film’s most appealing character.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Translation: Extended comic book/fantasy action, peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, crashes, brief sexual reference, reference to unhappy childhood, betrayal

Family discussion: What would Supreme Intelligence look like to you? How did Carol decide who to trust?

If you like this try: the Avengers movies, including “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier”

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Alita: Battle Angel

Posted on February 14, 2019 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, knives, guns, chases, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 15, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
The most surprising achievement of “Alita: Battle Angel,” a (mostly) live action version of a story that was originally a cyberpunk manga series of graphic novels and then an anime feature, is that somehow producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez managed to make the main characters anime-style eyes a lot less weird than I expected.

The title character (Rosa Salazar Rosa Salazar) is a young female cyborg with Keane-style manga eyes, so the uncanny valley risk of her look being distracting and disorienting. But it turned out to be easy to adjust to it and almost immediately I was immersed in the dazzling world of the film and caught up in the action. Cameron (“Terminator,” “Avatar,” “Titanic”) and Rodriguez (“Sin City,” “Desperado,” “From Dusk til Dawn”) are both visual masters. The world they have created is immersive and wildly imaginative and the action scenes are staged are dynamic and compelling. There’s heart to it as well, with an appealing heroine who brings us along with her as she sorts through the moral quandaries of this brutal environment, showing herself more human than the humans.

It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which the reduced population of Earth lives on what is essentially a planet-sized junk pile. A small group of wealthy elites live on a city suspended above earth like a gigantic Macy’s Thanksgiving parade balloon, as in the Matt Damon film “Elysium.” Everyone else just scrounges, scrambles, or battles for whatever they can.

Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) does what he can to help, replacing damaged body parts with sophisticated mechanical prostheses, many of the parts found through scavenging. Searching through rubble one day he finds a mangled treasure, the head and part of the torso of a cyborg girl. He brings her home and gives her arms and legs that look like they are made of delicately carved antique ivory. Their relationship recalls Geppetto and Pinocchio. He is the fond father of an adopted child that is very much his own creation. And as we will learn, the reason he had those lovingly prostheses ready is that he created them for a child who died before he could help her. Alita may be his second chance.

But Alita is not a little girl. As her memory comes back slowly, she becomes the warrior she was designed to be. She remembers her fighting skills first. Then some of the other details of her past begin to come back. She remembers that she fights and how she fights and something of why she fights though she is not as clear on where she came from or what her place is in the world.

A man named Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his physician colleague Cherin (Jennifer Connelly) run a lethal high-speed roller derby that is a “Hunger Games”-style form of Darwinian survival of the fittest entertainment and commerce — and a cover for some less public but more deadly activities. The other major economic enterprise of this society seems to be bounty hunting (including characters played by Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley) and chop shops for mechanical prostheses. One person involved is Hugo (Keean Johnson), who has to re-think what he has been doing when he finds himself falling for someone he might not have considered human before he looked into those big, big eyes.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril, action, and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images, guns, chases, explosions, some strong language, and kisses.

Family discussion: What does Dr. Ido want for Alita? Why did Chiren respond so differently to the death of her daughter?

If you like this, try: The “Star Wars” movies, “Speed Racer,” and “Jupiter Ascending”

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The LEGO Movie 2: The Second One

Posted on February 7, 2019 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild action and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 8, 2019

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
“The LEGO Movie 2: The Second One” is a great big box of happiness in part because of its non-stop cheeky humor but also in part because it deals subtly but frankly with three of the most annoyingly painful and near-universal human experiences: fighting with siblings, adolescent moodiness, and stepping on LEGOs in bare feet.

The first movie ended with a surprisingly meaningful and warm-hearted pivot from animation into live action as it turned out the entire story had been grounded in a conflict between a boy who wanted to play and a dad who wanted his LEGO world to be pristine and orderly. The kicker at the end was that the touching reconciliation between father and son was followed by the arrival of the preschool sister with her toddler-sized Duplos, who had her own destructive powers.

There’s a bit more live action in this sequel, and we see more clearly the relationship between what is going on in the lives of the real-life family and the imaginary play of the two children, now five years older but no more interesting in joining forces.

Once again, Emmet (Chris Pratt) thinks everything is awesome, barely noticing that the bustling metropolis of Bricksburg has turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland known as Apocalypseburg (“a heckish place to live”). Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), formerly known as Wyldstyle, tries to teach Emmet how to brood properly. “Look out into the distance and say whatever grim thoughts you have in a deep voice.” As we saw at the end of the last film, the Duplos arrive from the Systar System. When they take Lucy, Emmet follows to rescue her.

Adults will catch onto the names of some of the perils our dauntless hero faces along the way, like Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (a perfectly cast Tiffany Haddish), Systar, the dreaded ArMAMAgetin, and that notorious hiding place for LEGO figures, Undah de Dryah. That is, if they are not trying to get the film’s guaranteed new hit song, “The Catchy Song” (“This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head..”), or laughing too hard at the avalanche of pop culture meta-references, especially a song that takes on every iteration of Batman from Adam West to Christian Bale and a new character who not only bears a strong resemblance to Emmet but to his portrayer, Chris Pratt, as well.

It’s fast, fresh, fun, and funny, with a skillful mix of silliness and action and some random call-outs to celebrities from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who’s having quite a moment on screen these days) and Bruce Willis, back where he should be, crawling through heating ducts. But it has something interesting to say about how we decide when to change and when not to, and about its female characters. And watching it just might ease the pain not just of the universal experiences mentioned above, but of that other heartbreak — having your children grow out of childhood.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/cartoon-style peril and slapstick humor and some potty humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why did Lucy want Emmet to change? What do you do when everything’s not awesome?

If you like this, try: The first LEGO movie, “Trolls” and the “Toy Story” films

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The Grinch

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 4:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 4, 2019

Copyright Illumination 2018
My DVD pick of the week is “The Grinch,” which I reviewed for rogerebert.com.

An excerpt:

The visuals are delightfully Seussian, all curves and slants. I loved the mitten-shaped windows on one of the houses and the way that Whoville’s Christmas decorations make it look like a captivatingly intricate gingerbread village. In contrast, the Grinch’s mountain top lair is bare and cavernous, empty and solitary, far from the warmth of the Whovian homes.

While this is not especially inventive, there are some clever parallels as the Grinch and Cindy Lou each have to come up with a plan for Christmas Eve. They write out their schemes with the same two words alone on a huge surface: “Santa Claus.” And both must assemble helpers and equipment without anyone finding out.

The smaller details are the most fun, especially when the Grinch brings on an enormous, yak-looking reindeer named Fred to pull his fake Santa sleigh. Or when a relentlessly cheery Whovian (Kenan Thompson) with the fanciest Christmas decorations in town keeps insisting that he and the Grinch are best friends.

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