Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted on June 28, 2019 at 7:32 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright Sony 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.

Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.

Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.

Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.

The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.

I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.

The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.

Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted on May 30, 2019 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/sci-fi action, peril, and violence, massive destruction
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 26, 2019

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
There are a lot of monsters in and around this movie. “Monster” in its most literal meaning refers to san imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening, basically, something that falls outside of what we consider “normal.” But we use the term “monster” to describe people whose behavior is extremely cruel, violent, or hateful. Note: the Latin root of the word can mean “warn.”

All of that is on display in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” an Avengers-style roundup of the classic kaiju (“strange beast”) monsters from post-WWII movies about enormous creatures who cause massive destruction as white-coated scientists make frantic calculations, the military deploys its most powerful weapons, skyscrapers are knocked down, politicians debate, and ordinary people run and scream. And so we have our title character, Godzilla, who has been a, well, monster hit at the box office, with the longest continuously running movie franchise, from 1954 to the present day, 35 films so far. Then there are the flying reptile Rodan, the gigantic insect-like Mothra, and the three-headed, dragon-like King Ghidorah.

And then there are the people. It would be a stretch to call them “characters” because they mostly exist to represent different sides in the movie’s key divide, metaphor for metaphor for arrange of geopolitical issues ranging from refugees and immigration to environmental destruction to the role of public and private entities in national security and that oldest of themes, hubris as reflected by the age of atomic weapons. These issues are literally brought home in the way that a formerly married couple, Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark (Kyle Chandler) Russell, and their daughter Madison (“Stranger Things'” Millie Bobbie Brown). They were so traumatized by the death of their son in the last monster attack that they split up. Mark is now off in the wilderness studying wolves. Emma is still studying kaiju and working on a special thingamagig that can be used to control the monsters and prevent further destruction.

Only Madison knows about how Emma plans to use it. And when the monsters who had been dormant re-appear Emma brings Madison along in what appears to be a very poorly timed take your daughter to work day. As Emma’s colleagues are mowed down by an “eco-terrorist” (Charles Dance) Emma and Madison are captured.

Meanwhile, there is a debate in the outside world about how to deal with monsters. Should we kill them all? Should we acknowledge that they are the next stage of evolution and live with them? As one character says, when asked if they could just be our skyscraper-sized pets, “No, we would be theirs.” And the question of who really are the monsters is raised with just enough heft to add some interest without ever getting in the way of the reason for the movie, which is big things fighting with other big things.

I know, I know, you want me to get to the good stuff. And you can relax; I just spent more time on exposition than the film does. Co-writer/director Michael Dougherty knows why we’re here and boy, does he deliver, with the help of outstanding special effects and design crew. It is possible, I suppose, that you may have a chance to catch your breath at some point, in which case you might consider what the people behind that first Godzilla movie 65 years ago, with production values that might have seemed a bit crude even then, might think if they saw these never-less-than-spectacular kaiju, never less than majestic, every battle powerfully staged.

Even if they had worked on the characters and dialogue with as much imagination as they did with the creatures, it would just be a distraction. The international cast gives it what they can, but the only use for lines like “It’s an existential challenge to our world!” and “The earth unleashed a fever to fight the infection,” “You are messing with forces beyond your comprehension!” plus references to “playing God” and saving the world is to stay out of the way of the action. Happy summer — the popcorn pleasures have arrived.

Parents should know that this is a monster movie with extended sci-fi/fantasy peril, action, violence, mayhem, and destruction. Characters use strong language and there are issues of betrayal and family tensions.

Family discussion: What is the significance of the comment about the difference between the way Eastern and Western cultures see the stories about dragons? How would humans find a way to co-exist with monsters? Which humans behave like monsters?

If you like this, try: the kaiju movies, “Rampage,” and “Pacific Rim” and its sequel

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Avengers: Endgame

Posted on April 24, 2019 at 10:42 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: A handful of swear words including one said by a child
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy/comic book action, peril, and violence, battle scenes, characters injured and killed, very sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 12, 2019

Copyright 2019 Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios sticks the landing with “Avengers: Endgame,” a completely satisfying conclusion to the nearly two dozen films, bringing together the stories of a wide range of characters with complex, varied mythologies extending back over decades of stories in comics and other media.

We need to all take a moment to pay tribute to Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios, who has produced them all with a deep understanding of the characters and the fans and a truly remarkable ability to find a nuanced balance between canon and innovation. His willingness to let the individual stories of the characters develop in such different genres and still bring them together when it is time for the Avengers to assemble is an essential element of the success of the series. It would be like having separate film series for Harry Potter, Hermione, Ron, Draco, Professor McGonagall, and Dumbledore, one a romantic comedy, one a thriller, one a crime drama, one a political allegory, and then brought them all together every so often to continue the core story.

I am going to do my best to continue this review without spoilers, but there is one I am sure no one will mind. You do NOT need to stay through the very end as there are no extra scenes following the credits. That seems right for a movie that is such a resounding conclusion and I know you will be happy to get those ten minutes of your life back instead of sitting through the names of the personal chefs of the stars. Now, if you want to see it without knowing anything more than whether I liked it, let me just say here that I thought it was great and you can come back and read the rest after you’ve watched it and want to let me know what you think.

To answer the most frequently asked question: no, three hours does not seem long. It’s really three movies in one, and — fair warning — I could feel my objective critical faculties dissolving after about forty minutes when I realized that it was combining three of my very favorite movie genres in one. First is Marvel superhero stories, of course, with great effects and action, both one-on-one (and I really mean ONE) and big, BIG, battles. Then there’s getting the band back together, with a group of people who once worked together very closely but were not always in agreement (the “Civil War” debate comes back) seek each other out and try to form a team again. And then a heist, or rather, several heists, as the Avengers’ favorite McGuffin is very much a part of the story. There’s a fourth major theme as well, but that’s something I will not spoil except to say that even though they make delightful fun of the way that theme has been portrayed in many other movies, I strongly advise you not to think too deeply about whether the way it is portrayed in this one does any better in terms of consistency or logic.

To answer the second most frequently asked question: yes, you have to have seen the previous movie and as many in the series as possible to get the most out of it. This movie was made by fans for fans and there is tremendous depth that shows how thoroughly this world has been studied and imagined (though only one of the very knowledgable group I spoke to following the film could identify a briefly glimpsed teenage boy toward the end). To confirm the most frequent speculations of those anticipating the film, yes, we will be saying goodbye to some characters, every one of them in a supremely satisfying way, but bring a handkerchief. Yes, we will see some we thought were lost back again, sometimes in a flashback. One of the elements I loved most in this film was those flashbacks, which might give us a different look at scenes we thought we knew.

And the answer to a question that maybe fans forgot to ask, after all these movies: Yes, someone does say, “Avengers, assemble!” I admit it, my heart skipped a beat. It also thumped pretty hard several times and I cried more than once. The skill it takes to fight with Thanos is nothing compared to the skill it took to bring this series to such vibrant, thrilling life, and I am grateful to Stan Lee (yes, he gets a great cameo), Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Kevin Feige, Disney, the Russos, and especially to each of these actors, who bring their A game every time, for assembling this joyous finale.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/comic book peril, action, and violence with monsters, battle scenes, explosions, very sad deaths including death of a parent and fatal sacrifices and a handful of bad words, including one said by a child.

Family discussion: Did Cap make the right choice? What did the characters learn from their past experiences? Which Avenger is your favorite?

If you like this try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Black Panther,” “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

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Interview: Drew Fellman and Jake Owens on the new IMAX Film “Pandas”

Posted on April 1, 2018 at 10:15 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
Pandas are, as someone notes in the adorable new IMAX documentary simply called “Pandas,” “the King Kong of cuteness.” Kristen Bell narrates the story of an ambitious and daunting Chinese project, to take panda babies bred in captivity and release them into the wild, to repopulate the endangered species. The Chinese panda specialists consult with an American from New Hampshire who has a similar program for bears. And we get to watch as a panda named Qian Qian leaves the only home she has ever known. I spoke to director Drew Fellman and American panda expert Jacob Owens, who worked with Qian Qian and appears in the film.

Why are humans so drawn to pandas?

Fellman: I know, it’s a mystery, isn’t it? There is so much about that that really is so unknown, part of it I think is that pandas are still so new to us. Pandas were unknown to the West until about the 1860’s and the first panda showed up in the U.S. in 1920. Once people were introduced to pandas there has been a panda mania of some sort. From the very beginning they just captured the public imagination and I think part of that was because they seemingly came out of nowhere and they’re so big and so adorable and they look so unlike any other animal. The physical answer as to why they’re so adorable is because they have the strongest jaws you can imagine so they can bite through solid bamboo and that gives them these huge jaw muscles which give them a big round head like a giant baby.

Owens: Yes, babies are cute because they have big eyes and they have round heads, they’ve got disproportionate ears; and so you look at the pandas and it’s got big black spots that look like big eyes and big ears and a big round head, also they roll around more than any other animal I’ve ever seen. They love rolling. So not only do they do look really cute, they’re also really silly goofy animals.

In the film you say that the three qualities you were looking for in finding the right panda for the release program were courage, curiosity, and climbing ability. Why were those were the key skills and how do you look for them?

Owens: There is a lot of research that goes into this that we can draw from. It starts off with genetics and health; we want healthy individuals who have the right genetics for the places that we’re looking to release them. The next thing is looking at the behavior. We introduce novel stimuli to see how they respond. If an individual panda sees something new and instantly runs towards it that’s not necessarily the quality we need because we want them to be curious but also careful but you also don’t them to be so wary of everything that they won’t explore. They’ll need to explore their habitat, being able to find food on their own; things like this, so having in moderation being exploratory but also being cautious, being really vigilant; vigilance is a big thing always looking out for new dangers, those are the key features. And they have to climb well because they have to spend a lot of time in trees. They flee predators up trees and so being able to walk around and climb and do that well at a young age is a good indicator.

Did it feel like leaving a child at school to say goodbye that way?

Owens: Yeah, worse. As scientists you try not to get attached to the animals that you’re studying but this is very different than just strict science; this is reintroduction and release of individual animals and so we are doing all this research but then you’re also dealing with an individual and their own personality that’s unique and so you can’t help but personify and you can’t help but get very attached. You really care about them as an individual and also what they represent for the species. As a conservation biologist, I’m focused on making sure that there are individuals of species in the future. But at the same time just like anybody else, just like if you have a human child you want them to go off on their own and be able to be successful. It’s just that how you prepare them is a bit different. I don’t ever refer to it as training because I can’t train a panda to be a panda because I’m not one. So I call it conditioning or preparing, letting their natural instincts come out progressively through increasingly wild conditions and eventually to the point when they are ready to go out. We open the gate and she can make that decision when she wants to go out and when she wants to come back and, when she’s ready, just to be out fully.

What was the most important thing that the project learned from Ben Kilham, the man who has been raising bear cubs and releasing them successfully in New Hampshire?

Owens: Ben has been doing black bear rehabilitation for more than 20 years and so he’s just got a huge amount of knowledge about bears in general and pandas are bears. They are very different bears but they’re still bears. He also knows so much about rehabilitating and releasing animals. I’ve worked on reintroduction programs before with different species. People think that you should avoid all human interactions. Ben takes the opposite approach. He says there’s no real way to do that because these black bears don’t have a mom so you have to hand raise these cubs and you have to give them a safe environment to progress into the wild. Our pandas are born in captive care. Their mothers are also captive-born individuals so they don’t have the wild skills to teach their cubs. So for Ben the biggest thing is that human interaction has a real advantage, because once they trust you that provides us the access to keep on learning more about their biology, to keep on learning more about their conservation and also monitor them. I can change Qian Qian’s GPS collar just as Ben can with Squirty as you see in the film, and that’s a huge advantage because we can monitor her, we can follow her, we can see where she’s at, see how she’s doing. As technology increases we can do a lot more with that technology but if you don’t have access to them and they don’t trust you, then you’ll have to take other measures. You have to capture them in some kind of trap or use sedation and so because they know and trust us it’s a lot easier for us to do those things. Using those human interactions for those advantages is the biggest thing that I have learned from Ben in terms of our project.

Fellman: Also from the panda’s point of view is the positive interaction with the humans as opposed to being trapped or tranquilized which can be dangerous and can frighten them.

Owens: There is also the misconception that I had coming into this that if a panda or black bear gets used to one individual or a handful of individuals then they’re used to people and then they’re going to be a nuisance animal then there’s going to be a real problem and they’re not going to do well when they go out. But pandas and black bears are really smart and they can identify individual people very easily by the sound of their voice, by the smell and also by vision somewhat when you get close. It was a big learning thing for me to learn that we were wrong in thinking that this risk of them trusting a few human individuals is going to lead to touching every human. My dogs don’t do that in the States and most people’s dogs don’t do that in the States. Most animals just don’t do that.

What’s the most important thing that you want families to learn about pandas when they watch this movie?

Owens: I want people, especially families with young kids, that people around the world can work together really successfully and use their own combined strengths to work on an endeavor that’s really challenging. We’re really dedicated and I think that’s the big point — all of us globally working together to achieve a difficult goal.

Fellman: And another important message is that pandas are much more than just adorable animals; they are very smart, occasionally fierce, a bear with a mind of their own and they’re all individuals. It’s going to take a lot to create a better future for them and it’s something that’s really worth fighting for.

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Pacific Rim Uprising

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:06 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with disturbing images, giant robots, alien monsters, explosions, mass destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
I know you’re all eager to hear whether you will understand this movie if you haven’t seen (or, more likely, saw and forgot) the first one. Here is my answer: you won’t understand this film even if you did see and remember the first one and it just doesn’t matter. The first one was about giant robots fighting alien monsters and it ended with Idris Elba giving a great pep talk to the troops and then sacrificing himself to save the world.

Second verse, same as the first. Even bigger robots.  Even meaner monster aliens.  Even dumber dialogue.  Buildings knocked down and shattered as though they were made of eggshells.  A volcano. Plus mutant robot monster aliens.  A near-feral girl with a gift for creating robots.  A pilot with daddy issues.

And, I can’t help it, since it takes two pilots who mind-meld in a process called “drift” to operate the giant robots called Jaegers in perfect synchronization, every time they do it I keep thinking they’re playing Dance Dance Revolution.

That would be only slightly more silly than the actual storyline (hmm, a “Step Up”/”Pacific Rim” crossover — I offer this idea freely, noting that there is a promise of a third chapter at the end of the film).

“Star Wars'” John Boyega (who also co-produced) plays Jake, the son of the Idris Elba character. As he explains in a striking opening scene, the world has in some ways returned to normal after the defeat of the Kaiju monsters, though their enormous skeletons are still a reminder of the fight, one right next to the pool where Jake is enjoying a life of girls and parties. He has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps as a pilot or a hero. Like his “Star Wars” pal Rey, he is a scavenger, looking Jaeger robot junkyards. But things go wrong when a helmeted motorcycle rider steals the special part he promised to some very unforgiving guys. I note here the famous Roger Ebert rule that a mysterious helmeted figure will always turn out to be female. Yes, Amara (Cailee Spaeny) is not only female but young, and a Shuri-like tech whiz who is building her own Jaeger. The two of them end up in jail, and then, of course, sent to pilot training. “Ender’s Game”-style, younger recruits are taken because they are better at drifting.

When they arrive, Amara excitedly recognizes all the various Jaegers as a way of reintroducing us to them, and, discovering who Jake is, reminds us again that his father was a hero and he is not too happy about that. The tough, this-is-serious-business commanding officer is Nate (Scott Eastwood, channeling his dad), who says things like, “You and I both know you could have been great.”

There’s also a lot of “We need it now.” “It can’t be done.” “Do it anyway” “I need more time!” “We don’t have any!” “You got this!” “Let’s do this!” “Will it work?” “One way to find out!” talk and a lot of “20 kilometers to impact” military/tech language. And Jake says he can’t give a pep talk like his dad but he does. Does it include “This is OUR time!” Yes, it does.

The good thing is that the movie does not just know how silly it is — it embraces the silliness. The better thing is that it has EVEN BIGGER ROBOTS fighting EVEN BIGGER MUTANT ROBOT ALIENS! No matter how dumb it gets, no matter that the robots and monsters have more personality than the humans, no matter how much it seems like a mash-up of “Transformers,” “Ender’s Game,” “Starship Troopers,” and anime, it is undeniably fun to see robots bashing monsters, and thankfully there isn’t much in between the battles to slow things down.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, scary monsters, some disturbing images, sad death of parents, issues of sacrifice, brief strong language, brief crude humor

Family discussion: Why did Jake insist that he was not like his father? How do you think the drift works? How do you prevent being defined by other people?

If you like this, try: The first “Pacific Rim,” “Ender’s Game,” and “Starship Troopers”

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