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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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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Ralph Breaks the Internet

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action/cartoon-style peril and chase scenes, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Copyright 2018 Disney

I’ve got to warn you — you’re going to need to see this movie at least twice. And I’ve got good news for you — it is well worth it. The sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” is “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and just like the Internet itself it is bursting with endless enticing distractions. But in the midst of all that is also a wise and warmhearted story with endearing characters. And it is a rare comedy that understands it is not enough to refer to a specific cultural touchstone; it has to have something to say about it. What it does have to say is so shrewd and funny it may merit a third viewing.

“Wreck-it Ralph” was about characters in old-fashioned video arcade games, the kind they used to have before we had laptops and phones that we could play games on. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is not exactly the bad guy but the menace in his very old-school game. All he does is break things that are repaired (if the game player is successful) by Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer). He ends up visiting some newer games, including a military first-person shooter game and a racing game called Sugar Rush, with the cars made of candy. There he meets a brash little girl with a pixel-shaking “glitch” named Vanellope. The happy ending resolves various issues and Ralph and Vanellope end up friends.

As this movie begins, everything seems to be going fine. Ralph is very happy meeting up with Vanellope every night after the arcade closes to talk about, well, everything. But the arcade owner (Ed O’Neill) is upgrading. “What is wiffy?” Ralph wants to know. That would be Wifi. And the next thing they know, Ralph and Vanellope are whisked into the big, wild world of the Internet and like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland and the Pevensies in Narnia, they will have many thrilling adventures and meet many astonishing characters before they find their way home. The characters’ idea of what home and friendship mean will be changed, shifted, or enlarged by their experience, one of the film’s most thoughtful elements.

But on the way there we have so much fun seeing the most familiar — and some of the most frustrating — elements of the digital world reflected and personified, and writer/directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore take advantage of Disney’s unsurpassed line-up of characters to fill the movie with surprising and hilarious cameos. The highlight is the funniest scene you will see at the movies this year, when Vanellope ends up in a room with the Disney princesses (almost all with the original voice talent). What’s great about this is that Johnston and Moore are the rare filmmakers who know that referring to a cultural icon is not enough; you have to say something about it. And what they have to say about the princesses strikes the perfect balance between affection and irony. No more waiting for a prince to come. These sisters are doing it for themselves. Also stopping to sing by water at some point, though.

The film is not just smart about culture, digital and IRL. It is smart about people, and especially about our fears and insecurities. It’s a rare film for children that goes beyond “friends are great!” and explores the delicate negotiations of relationships between people who may have different ideas about what they want. A wise man taught me a long time ago that everyone has different tolerance levels for ambiguity and that each of us has different tolerances for ambiguity across a wide range of categories. Someone can be comfortable taking big risks in one area, but not another. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” has a deep understanding that even adults will find illuminating. Plus, it is a ton of fun and if you stay ALL the way to the end there is one more sly joke.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy/video game-style peril and violence, chases, crashes, no one seriously hurt, and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: How are Ralph and Vanellope alike and how are they different? Which is your favorite Disney princess and why? What is your favorite thing about the Internet?

If you like this, try: “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia”

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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Posted on October 31, 2018 at 8:04 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild peril
Profanity: Some mild languages
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, swords, falls, no one hurt, characters grieving sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 28, 2019
Copyright 2018 Disney

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is a beautiful empty mess of a movie. The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas and costumes by Jenny Beavan are genuinely enchanting. Disney is a modern-day Medici, giving work to the world’s top artisans and the look of the film is gorgeously imagined. But boy, it’s like a fabulously wrapped gift that once you remove the ribbons and paper turns out to be nothing but an empty box. Ultimately, the visuals are so sumptuous and look-at-me that they overwhelm the story.

It is inspired, of course, by the classic ballet, which, let’s all admit, is not much of a story, based on a 200 year old tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann about a young girl named Clara who defeats an evil mouse king with the help of a nutcracker who comes to life. It’s just there to provide an excuse to play the one of the most beloved orchestral pieces of all time, the celestial Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite and to perform the now-classic dances. Half of the Nutcracker is just a performance put on for Clara by dolls and toys of different nationalities.

Almost as well-loved as the ballet, a perennial holiday favorite, is the sequence in Disney’s “Fantasia” (which premiered in 1940, four years before the first US performance of the Nutcracker ballet). Fish swim sinuously to the Arabian Dance music, and fairies bring winter to the forest to Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. But what everyone remembers best is the mushrooms dancing to the Chinese section, one tiny mushroom racing to keep up.

In this version, Clara (Mackenzie Foy, struggling with her English accent and struggling even more with a story that veers from dull to wha??) is the middle child in family in mourning following the death of the mother. It is their first Christmas without her, and they are all feeling lost. Clara’s father (Matthew Macfadyen) tells the children that their mother left them each a gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, a favorite ball gown for her older sister, toy soldiers for her younger brother, and for Clara an intricate egg-shaped box without the key to unlock it. The note says that everything Clara needs is inside.

Clara, like her mother, is a gifted mechanical engineer (she amuses her brother with a clever Rube Goldbergian contraption that deserves more of a payoff later, but the filmmakers do not appear to be paying much attention or expecting us to be, either). So, at the very fancy Christmas Eve party where her father’s primary concern is that Clara dance with him “because everyone expects it,” Clara does just what he told her not to do — she sneaks off to find the host, her godfather (Morgan Freeman, in an eyepatch), who is ignoring the guests and tinkering in his workroom. She thinks he might have a key. And of course in a way, he does.

The next thing we know, Clara has been led to a mysterious Oz/Narnia-like enchanted land, where a mouse steals the key and she chases after him. With the help of a nutcracker come to life (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she learns some secrets about her mother and has to save the day from the evil character who wants to dominate the four realms. Believe me, you don’t need to understand this part. You probably don’t want to, either.

There are some references to “Fantasia,” including an image of a conductor and orchestra directly taken from the film. But why put the red mushrooms in the forest if they aren’t going to dance? Why bring in James Newton Howard to create a new score when it is definitively impossible to improve on Tchaikovsky? And why why why relegate Misty Copeland (mostly) to a credit sequence after the movie is over? The ballet scenes are frustratingly short, while chase scenes and PG-level action take far too much time.

Director Lasse Hallström, known for warm-hearted, deeply sympathetic films like “My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “Cider House Rules” had to leave the film for another project, and it was finished by Joe Johnston, known for skill with special effects stories like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” and “Jumanji.” This may explain a disjointed tone, particularly with one character whose transformation is fine as a matter of plot but jarringly wrong in tone that takes us completely out of the movie. It is lovely to have a fantasy film with a girl who has courage and agency, but the way it handles its themes of loss are disjointed as well, with a truly jarring disparity in the treatment of Clara and the rest of her family and slightly creepy suggestions about the way the girls make up to their father for the loss of their mother and about how evil and (mild) sexuality (double entendres) are linked.

This movie would be a lot better if it had fewer realms and better writers.

Parents should know that this is too intense for little ones, with scary soldiers, peril and some violence, swords, falls (no one hurt) and characters mourning a sad death of a parent.

Family discussion: What did the note from Clara’s mother mean? What made Clara different from her brother and sister? What made her change her mind about Mother Ginger? How do Clara and Sugar Plum respond differently to the loss of someone they loved?

If you like this, try: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Labyrinth”

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Crazy Rich Asians

Posted on August 16, 2018 at 11:25 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 15, 2018
Date Released to DVD: November 19, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

The Beatles song “Money” (“The best things in life are free/But you can keep them for the birds and bees/Now give me money/That’s what I want”) sung in Chinese begins to prepare us for the rarified world of the ultra-wealthy families of Singapore in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

It is a romantic comedy that lets us see over-the-top glamour, money, privilege, and parties through the eyes of a Chinese-American daughter of a single mother, which invites us to gawk and judge. It raises thoughtful, nuanced questions about the difference between traditional views of sacrifice for family and American views on pursuing individual dreams. It introduces us to a fabulous cast of talented, gorgeous performers all clearly loving the opportunity to be in a story with an all-Asian cast. And it presents the essential elements of a romance with great specificity of detail about the Asian and Asian-American perspective but also with great universality of experience. Most of us will never attend a $14 million wedding, but most of us have experienced the terror of meeting the family of someone we love and hoping we will be judged worthy.

A flashback scene set in 1995 gives us a sense of the scope of wealth so enormous it is a sort of superpower. A rain-drenched Asian family with young children arrives at a snooty London hotel, only to be told that the reservation they had confirmed the day before has somehow disappeared. “Perhaps you can find a place in Chinatown.” The mother (Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor) politely asks to use the phone. We next see her out in the rain again, talking in a phone booth. Then she is back in the hotel lobby, being greeted warmly by the hotel’s owner, or, to be exact, the former owner. She has just bought the hotel.

And then it’s on to the present day, where Rachel Chu (Constance Wu from “Fresh off the Boat”), a professor of economics at NYU, is showing off her expertise in poker as a demonstration of game theory for her students. “Game theory” is the study of the strategies people use in situations that give one person a chance to do better than another, whether in an actual game like chess or a contract negotiation, management of employees, or even family issues like who empties the dishwasher. This is a skill that can be a sort of superpower of its own, as we will see.

Rachel is in love with hunky Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding, host of the BBC Travel Show in his first acting role), who seems like an ordinary, if exceptionally good-looking and charming, sort of guy. He asks her to go with him to Singapore, to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family. He does not mention that he is a Crazy Rich Asian, but we begin to get the idea when a fellow Singaporean snaps a photo and sends it around the world in an amusing avalanche of “OMGs” and “Who’s that girl with Nick” messages. (Look very quickly to see author Kevin Kwan hashtagging away.)

Rachel begins to get the idea when they are greeted at the curb of the airport and escorted into the first class lounge, before being given silk pajamas and a suite with a bed on the plane. But she does not understand how far up in the stratosphere of wealth Nick and his family are until she visits her college roommate Peik Lin Goh (rap star Awkwafina, stealing every scene as neatly as she picked pockets in “Oceans 8”) and her nouveau riche parents. They proudly point to their vulgar furnishings. “It was inspired by Versailles Hall of Mirrors,” Mrs. Goh explains. “Or Donald Trump’s bathroom,” Peik Lin replies.

Peik Lin also explains just how crazy rich the Youngs are, and she also explains that the nice off-the-rack red dress Rachel brought is not going to make it, and offers a gown from her own closet. Rachel may be dressed appropriately for the party at the Young’s castle-sized mansion, but she is overwhelmed and, after a couple of minor faux pas (who knew the finger bowl was not soup?), she meets Nick’s family, and begins to realize that the obstacle is not the money but the mother.

Where there is money, there are people desperate to get it and keep it, and that leads to some mean girl moments at a fabulous bachelorette party and also to encounters with people who have different reactions to money — snobbery, obsequiousness, jealousy, resentment, and of course good old-fashioned greed. All of which would make a great lecture in her economics class.

Wu gives a warm, smart, sensitive performance, with a dimpled smile so irresistible that we don’t just feel Nick’s affection for her; we feel our own. It is a great pleasure to see the heroine of a romantic comedy have a serious academic position and not the usual cutesy rom-com jobs like blogger or proprietor of a bakery or gift shop. Her professional accomplishment gives her perspective and confidence and a few years more experience than the usual rom-com heroine. And it is a great pleasure to have Asian actors in such a wide variety of roles, every one specific, integral to the story, and lending the movie layers of meaning. “Crazy Rich Asians” is one crazy good movie.

NOTE: A mid-credit scene featuring “Glee’s” Harry Shum, Jr. hints at sequels, and there are two more books in the series, so here’s hoping.

Parents should know that this film includes non-explicit sexual situations, adultery, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Mrs. Young’s comments on Americans? How do you balance family obligation with individual dreams? Who are “your kind of people?”

If you like this, try: “Fresh Off the Boat” on television, starring Constance Wu, and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” starring Michelle Yeoh

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