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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The Kid Who Would Be King

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence with monsters, characters injured and killed, beheading, swords, car crashes, references to mental illness and alcoholism of a parent, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 25, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
Every once in a while, a kid has to pull a sword from the stone and save the world. And what makes this particular kid the right one is thoughtfully presented in this present-day retelling of the story of Arthur, the once and in this case literally future king. Louis Ashbourne Serkis plays Alex, a 12-year-old who is very close to his single mother (Denise Gough). His best friend is Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), who is regularly bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Alex comes to his defense and gets into a scuffle with the much bigger, tougher, bullies, but refuses to tell the headmistress or his mother who started it.

On the run from Lance and Kaye himself, Alex hides out in a construction site, where he sees a sword stuck in a stone and pulls it out. At home, he finds a book his father had given him about the story of King Arthur, inscribed to him: To Alex, the Once and Future King. At school, a gawky new student named “Merton” is so strange he seems like good news to Bedders, who tells Alex he will deflect attention from them as the formerly most tempting targets at the school. But “Merton” is in fact Merlin (Angus Imbrie), who is actually very old but looks like a teenager because he is living backwards, except when he flickers back into his actual age and looks like Patrick Stewart.

Merlin tells Alex that the sword is King Arthur’s Excalibur, to be used to defeat Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who has been waiting for the world to achieve a level of turmoil that would make it possible for her to return. If you’ve read the news lately, you will not be surprised to learn that the necessary level of turmoil has been achieved and surpassed.

Alex decides he has to find his father for guidance, and he asks Lance and Kaye to join him, noting that their names recall King Arthur’s closest allies, Sir Lancelot and Sir Kay, as well as Bedders/Sir Bedivere. Lance and Kaye may be bullies, but they are strong and brave, and may be persuaded to follow the Chivalric Code (or pretend to).

Meanwhile, Morgana is getting stronger, and she sends flaming skeleton emissaries on horseback to attack Alex. Merlin introduces the group to the real purpose of Stonehenge and the other prehistoric standing stone structures throughout England (think of them as subway stations) and gives them a sword-fighting tutorial with trees come to life in one of the movie’s best scenes.

Alex is very familiar with “chosen one” stories like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, where the hero is “chosen” in significant part from his biological heritage, and he believes that the gift from the father he never knew is proof of his own heritage as the reason for his fitness to carry Excalibur. The movie makes it clear that this is not the case. Alex will have to think about what it is that made him able to get the sword and how he can use those qualities to defeat Morgana.

Both Serkis and Imrie have some hefty heritages of their own, one the son of motion-capture wizard Andy Serkis and the other the son of “Calendar Girls” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” star Celia Imrie. Like the other young cast members, they have appealing screen presences, and Imrie in particular has loads of lanky charm, wearing a Led Zeppelin 1975 tour t-shirt and snarfing down the 21st century equivalent of his elixir. Director Joe Cornish of the cheeky “Attack the Block” keeps things lively, with plenty of humor to balance the action and a rousing finale with the entire school joining the fight.

Parents should know that this film has extensive fantasy peril and violence, with some scary images and monsters, chases, bullies, car crashes, a beheading, brief comic nudity (non-explicit) and some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why was Alex the right person to have the sword? Why did he choose Lance and Kaye to help him? Could you follow the movie’s version of the Chivalric Code?

If you like this, try: “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court,” “The Sword in the Stone,” and “Camelot”

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Aquaman

Posted on December 20, 2018 at 5:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: A few bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scene in a bar, some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/fantasy peril and violence, chases, explosions, monster, sacrifice/suicide of parent, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 21, 2018

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
On “Entourage” they made fun of the idea of an Aquaman movie as third-tier cheesiness. Even the San Diego Comic-Con fanboys on “The Big Bang Theory” have no respect for Aquaman. He had a very small, unmemorable role in the Justice League movie. So, can a big-budget comic-book movie about a superhero whose powers are — talking to fish? Breathing under water? be any good? Well, throw in some riders on sea-horses, a drum-playing octopus, a majestic, wildly imaginative candy-colored underwater city and a superhero with the grooming aesthetics of a Son of Anarchy, throw out all of the laws of physics and many of the laws of logic, and the answer is oh, sure, why not?

It’s a hoot. In this version of the story, Aquaman is the mixed-race son of a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and an undersea princess (Nicole Kidman) who met when the princess, running away from an arranged marriage, got injured and washed up on the shore. Fortunately, she speaks English, which turns out to be the universal language of all of the undersea kingdoms, who can speak under water as easily and be heard as clearly as though they were on land. See above re laws of physics. Anyway, the human and the underwater princess fall in love and have a much-loved baby named Arthur until her people track her down and she has to go back to protect her husband and child. We will later discover that she returned to the forced marriage, had a son who became heir to the throne, and was killed for having committed the sin of having a “mongrel” child.

Arthur (yes, as in Camelot) grows up with some connection to his undersea heritage, including a Merlin-like guide (Willem Dafoe). He serves as guardian to humans at sea, and early on we see him take on some pirates. One is killed, in part because Arthur refuses to save him, and his son (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) vows revenge.

Meanwhile, another underwater princess (Amber Heard as Mera) is trying to persuade Arthur to claim the throne. Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is working to unite all of the underwater kingdoms so he can declare war on humans. He has a point — they are upset about all of the poison and junk we keep dumping in the oceans. But we won’t dwell on that because Orm is pretty evil. We know that because he looks like Draco Malfoy and has no sense of humor. And besides, what’s more important is that there is SO MUCH to look at. Each underwater city and population is wildly imaginative and spectacularly gorgeous. If the storyline gets overstuffed, more labors of Hercules than the usual superhero saga (thank you for skipping the origin backstory, by the way), it is a lot of fun, an expert mix of action, adventure, humor, family, and a little romance.

NOTE: Stay for a post-credit scene.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence with weapons, explosions, spears, knives, suicide sacrifice, monster, characters injured and killed and some disturbing images, along with a few bad words.

Family discussion: What did Arthur understand because of his dual heritage? What made him change his mind about what he thought he wanted?

If you like this, try: the comic books and “The Guardians of the Galaxy”

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