Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted on December 14, 2021 at 12:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very sad death, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021
Date Released to DVD: April 11, 2022

Copyright Sony 2021
Spider-Man: No Way Home” is everything a comic book movie should be, filled with excitement, heart, humor, and details to delight the fans. There were audible gasps of joy and more than a few tears in the audience when I saw it, and some of them were mine.

It is tough to say much more without spoilers, but I am going to try. I recommend that you see the movie before reading the rest of the review, though, if you want the delight of all of the surprises. Then come back here and see what I have to say to find out if you agree.

It takes off where “Spider-Man: Far From Home” left us, with the public revelation that Spider-Man is high school student Peter Parker. Now, helicopters are hovering outside of the apartment Peter (Tom Holland) shares with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Blowhard J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) is a Limbaugh/O’Reilly-style media personality who calls Spider-Man a terrorist and vigilante, leading to public protests. Aunt May, Spidey’s best friend and “chair guy,” Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) are all being harassed. Almost as painful, his high school teacher has set up something of a shrine and the principal tries to reassure him by telling him he is welcome to swing through the halls or crawl on the ceiling.

Peter cannot live his life or help anyone else in this situation, so he goes to one of the other Avengers for help: Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). What he needs is a way to make everyone forget they know his secret identity. Strange agrees to help, but Peter interrupts the spell and something goes wrong.

Spoiler alert, last warning: this opens up a portal to the multi-verse, and that lets in some of the classic Spidey villains, including my all-time favorite, Doc Oct (Alfred Molina). There is also an appearance by my least favorite Spider-Man villain, but this film gives him a vastly better role. This leads to some show-stopping confrontations, staged with exceptional dynamism, pacing, and even wit. There are some very funny moments when the super-villains refer to each other as “a brilliant scientist” and when they compare notes. “You fell into something? I fell into something!”

There are more delicious meta-moments, but it is all anchored by real emotion. Peter is a teenager, so the anguish of college applications and the drama of first love are as wrenching as the battles with supervillains to save the planet. Just as the previous entry upended the usual structure of the superhero/supervillain conflict, this one remixes it again, raising the fundamental question about what it is we want or should want from those battles, but cleverly letting us have it both ways. Peter’s mentor, Tony Stark, is gone, and so the person he seeks help from is Dr. Strange. Like Stark, he is arrogant and impatient but not unmoved by Peter and he provides some critical (in both senses of the word) direction, ordering Peter, Ned, and MJ to “Scooby-Doo this s**t.” If it glosses quickly over the actual problem-solving (requiring chemical stuff and mechanical stuff and computer stuff) it’s fine because we would not want to watch that for too long when there are action scenes ahead and they are bangers.

Peter gets some guidance and support from an unexpected source that adds to the humor and to the emotional heft of the story, touching on love, loss, chance, and regret and, as they say in “The Good Place,” what we owe each other. What Marvel/Sony/Columbia owes the audience is a terrific comic book movie, and they have delivered.

NOTE: Stay all the way through the credits for TWO extra scenes.

Parents should know that this film features extended superhero/fantasy peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there is a very sad death and discussion of loss and regret. There is some strong language and a kiss.

Family discussion: Was Aunt May right about second chances? What was the most important thing Peter learned from his counterparts?

If you like this, try: the entire Spidey-verse of movies, including the three each for Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield and the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

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Encanto

Posted on November 23, 2021 at 5:27 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 24, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 7, 2022

Copyright Disney 2021
We all feel that way at times. It seems like everyone has something special except for us. “Encanto,” the new animated film from Disney captures that imposter phenomenon with a story set in Columbia about a girl who is the only one in her family with no magical powers. It is colorful and exciting and funny and warm-hearted and, something harder to find, it is also wise.

As we learn in one of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s bright, energetic songs early in the film, Mirabel (sweetly voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) loves her family and is very proud that her mother has healing powers and her aunt has superstrength. Other family members can understand animals, predict the future, or shape-shift. Mirabel’s sister’s superpower just seems to be perfection.

The Madrigal family has a rich, storied history. When her grandparents were young, they fled their home. Her grandfather was killed by the people they were trying to escape. But her grandmother, clutching her baby, was blessed with the powers to help her community survive. A generation later, the family is the center of that now-settled community, living in a home with its own magical powers and personality. That house, communicating with flipping floor tiles and steps that slip into slides and creating dazzling new rooms to recognize each family member’s powers, is one of the movie’s highlights.

The family has a ceremony when each member receives his or her magical powers. But for some reason, Mirabel’s never arrived. She even wears glasses (the first Disney lead character to do so) to show just how ordinary and relatable she is.

Unexpectedly, the magic the family has counted on and taken pride in — and taken for granted — seems to begin to be dissolving. And that is when the girl who does not think she is special begins to understand that she, and only she, has the qualities the family needs to keep them together.

That means adventure. It also means learning some lessons about how even the most loving, high-performing, and functional families have to deal with secrets and sometimes painful and scary truths. This insight is gently but thoughtfully explored, understanding that sometimes it is especially difficult to be honest with happy families for fear of letting the others down. But when family policy is “We don’t talk about Bruno,” it is time for someone to ask why. And when we do not leave room for family members to be less than perfect, it is time to tell them it is okay if they make mistakes and in fact if they don’t, it’s a good idea to tell them to make some. Families will enjoy “Encanto” but what may be more meaningful are the conversations we have afterward.

NOTE: Before the film there is an animated short called “Far from the Tree,” a gorgeously animated story about animal mothers and the curious babies they try to keep safe.

Parents should know that this movie includes some fantasy peril and some difficult family struggles.

Family discussion: Which magical power would you like to have? Why did one family member hide? How do you honor a miracle?

If you like this, try: “Brave,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and “Moana”

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Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 5:48 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended occult-style peril and violence, sad death, discussion of parental abandonment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 19, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 24, 2022

Copyright Columbia 2021
They should have called this film “Ghostbusters: Half-life” because we now know that the time it takes to diminish the still-impressive special effects and supernatural action plus a very catchy theme song and off-beat comedy that was cynical but not snarky in the 1984 original to about one-half of the original entertainment value is officially 37 years. Jason Reitman takes over for his father Ivan (who produces) and yet somehow they manage to change what worked in the original, misuse what is new and keep only what shows us how much better the 1984 original was. I mean, how do you put Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd in a movie and not make use of their exceptional talents? How do you make a “Ghostbusters” movie and miss the cynical but not snarky vibe that was the heart of the now-classic? Let me put it this way, but first note: SPOILER ALERT (already spoiled in the trailer, so fair game in my opinion) — when characters from the original show up in this one and say, “Did you miss us?” the answer is “We still do.”

The original film was about three adult scientists played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis (the last two co-wrote the film with Rick Moranis, who also appeared in the film), who with a colleague played by Ernie Hudson start a firm that will capture and imprison ghosts and other supernatural creatures. And it captured something of the gritty In Ghostbusters: Afterlife, it is tweens and teenagers who happen upon some of the ghost-busting equipment when a struggling single mom (Carrie Coon) inherits a near-collapsing old Oklahoma farmhouse from the estranged father who deserted her when she was a child. She moves in with her two children, !5 year old Trevor (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard) and 13-year-old STEM genius Phoebe (Makenna Grace in a lovely performance). They make friends with two local kids Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Podcast (because he is constantly recording podcasts), played by Logan Kim. When Phoebe takes a summer school science class with a bored seismologist (Paul Rudd as Gary) who is investigating the unusual earthquakes in the area, he recognizes some of the equipment she found in the house as belonging to the original Ghostbusters. They were so successful in eradicating the ghosts and other creatures (including the gigantic Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man) from New York that there was not much more for them to do.

You’d think Gary, knowing all this, would not want to open up the ghost-trap, but this not the kind of movie where characters behave in a logical manner because the plot requires them to do many dumb things, except when it requires Phoebe to be an expert at everything from lock-picking to analog mechanics. (She does get a little help from a friendly spirit.)

This one doesn’t come close to the original’s exceptionally deft balance of comedy, supernatural effects, and thrills, mostly because appealing as they are, the kids at the center of the story don’t have the raffish charm or gritty setting of the original team. It’s more of a Nickelodeon version (not up to the standards of Walden or Disney), and the underuse of Coon and Rudd is unforgivable. Like the Stay-Puff marshmallow creature update, this film is the pocket-size version, small in scares, small in laughs, and likely to be forgotten by the time you get to the parking lot.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and extended fantasy/occult peril and violence as well as discussion of parental abandonment.

Family discussion: What surprising history can you learn about your grandparents? Would you listen to Podcast’s podcast? If you were going to make a podcast, what would it be about?

If you like this, try: the original “Ghostbusters” film and the under-appreciate 2016 reboot with Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Chris Hemsworth

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Clifford the Big Red Dog

Posted on November 9, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic element, mild action, impolite humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild fantasy peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2021

Copyright Paramount 2021
The title Clifford the Big Red Dog tells it all: this is a movie about a little girl who fills a red dog with so much love he becomes giant-sized overnight. He causes a lot of chaos. A bad guy tries to steal him. That’s the story.

It began with a 1963 book by Norman Bridwell, a very simple story designed for pre- and beginning readers, about a girl named Emily Elizabeth and her gigantic red dog. He isn’t perfect. He did not win a prize at the dog show. But she loves him the way he is. This led to 79 more books, with Clifford doing everything from going to the hospital and learning about opposites, numbers, school, and friendship to celebrating Hanukkah, Mother’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. Clifford also appeared on television in animated series, voiced originally by the late John Ritter, and in video games.

In this live-action feature, Clifford does not speak. And we learn a lot more about Emily Elizabeth, played by the very appealing Darby Camp. She lives with her loving but overstressed single mom, Maggie (Sienna Guillory). Emily Elizabeth is having some problems in school, because some mean girls make fun of her for being a scholarship student. When Maggie has to go out of town on a business trip, she reluctantly has her brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) move out of the van he has been sleeping in and into her apartment to take care of Emily Elizabeth. Casey is well-meaning but immature and about halfway between haphazard and criminal neglect. (Question to ponder: Why doesn’t Whitehall use his actual British accent since he is playing the brother of an English woman who does have an accent and it requires a useless explanation for why he has an American accent.)

At a pet fair, they meet a mysterious and possibly magical guy named Bridwell (a tribute to the author the books), played by John Cleese with a twinkle in his eye. Among the exotic animals is an adorable tiny little red puppy. “How big is he going to get?” “It depends on how much you love him,” Bridwell tells her. It’s a lot of love because the next morning he is the size of a one-story house. Oh, and there is a strictly-enforced no pets policy in the building, enforced by the super (David Alan Grier).

There are no surprises in the movie and it may drag for anyone over 8, but it is nicely diverse, with a sense of community and a strong supporting cast that includes “SNL’s” Kenan Thompson as an obliging veterinarian and Tony Hale as the tech CEO who is willing to do anything to find the source of Clifford’s growth. It is not necessary to make her one supportive classmate have a crush on her instead of just being a friend. But it is nice to see that friend’s father and some of the other adults so helpful and kind. It’s by no means a classic but kids will enjoy the comic mayhem and happy ending and parents will enjoy their enjoyment.

Parents should know that there is some mild fantasy peril and mayhem, some bullying, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Why are the girls at school so mean to Emily Elizabeth? What makes them change? Would you like to have Clifford as a pet? How would you take care of him?

If you like this, try: the books and the animated feature film, “Clifford’s Really Big Movie

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Eternals

Posted on October 31, 2021 at 9:39 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, brief sexuality, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended superhero peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, scary monsters, weapons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Exceptionally diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 14, 2022

Copyright Marvel Studios 2021
I’m sorry to tell you The Eternals is a mess. I’m sorry because I like Marvel movies and I like the writer/director Chloé Zhao and I wanted to love it.

I did almost love parts of it, but other parts are truly disappointing which is why it is a mess. At least that is better than being bad. I’m not sure anyone could have made it work. It is like calling up the Low-A baseball team to play in a World Series game, leaving us all sitting there in an enormous Major League Baseball stadium watching a team that is just not up to that kind of attention. It might have been nice to see these second-tier Marvel characters in a lower-key, lower-budget setting instead of the massive, time and place-hopping heavily CGI’d epic that keeps threatening to overshadow the characters as we try to remember which one has which powers and how they all relate to each other.

It does not help that we have spent 26 films over 14 years to get to know the most powerful superheroes on the planet (in the MCU’s version) and we are now told that there’s another bunch of superheroes we have not seen before who are even more powerful. The reason we have not seen them before is they’re in theory not allowed to interfere with human matters. They have been on earth since its earlier beginning with just one job, to fight some monsters called, not very imaginatively, deviants. They look like they’ve been made out of flexible steel pipes. They were sent by a God-like Celestial called Arishem. We see them at different points in human history, fighting deviants, learning to use their powers, bickering, and occasionally interfering in human affairs by helping out with some advanced technology.

In the present day, the group has split up, so, like “Avengers: Endgame” there is a long getting-the-band-back-together section, but in this case we don’t have a 20+ movie investment in the characters so it is more about providing an opportunity to introduce the Eternals and provide some comic relief. That welcome respite comes from newly-buff Kumail Nanjiani, who has become a Bollywood movie star (his dance number is a treat).

There are so many characters and so many powers and so many run-ins and conflicts and shifts that there simply is not room to go into them, so I’m going to summarize some of the film’s strengths and weaknesses instead of trying to recap even the basics of the characters and storyline.

Strength: the cast is excellent and it is a delight to see this group of first-rate performers, one of the most diverse in any film in any category, doing their best and having fun. Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie is Thena, an Eternal who sometimes has a breakdown and starts attacking the others instead of the divergents. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has a powerful punch, but he spends centuries caring for Thena and their scenes together are touching. Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians” plays a sometime leader of the group with grace.

Weakness: there are too many characters, even for a movie that is more than 2 1/2 hours long (including the TWO credit sequences).

Strength: the cinematography is beautiful. Some people will disagree, but I thought the delicate gold filigree-like effects indicating the Eternals’ powers are lovely.

Weakness: The specifics and distinctions of the various powers are not as clear as they should be, and the same goes for the creatures they are fighting. We need a clearer idea of the stakes to understand the fight scenes.

Weakness: Speaking of stakes, the perameters of the Eternals’ mission it fuzzy as well. They’re not supposed to interfere with the affairs of humans. Except kind of sometimes.

Strength: The diversity of the characters was outstanding. It was organic, never artificial, and added enormously to the storyline.

Conclusion: It’s too long. It doesn’t hold together. Its actors are stronger than their characters. It looks lovely.

Parents should know that this movie has extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and references to real-life events like the bombing of Hiroshima. There is some strong language and an explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Which of the Eternals do you like the best? Which powers would you like to have? What should you know before following someone’s instructions?

If you like this, try: the comics and the other Marvel movies

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