The Witches (2020)

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Magical potions
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comedy/fantasy peril, children and witches transformed into animals, sad death of parents in auto accident
Diversity Issues: Diversity issues of the era briefly referred to
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2020
Copyright HBO 2020

The witches are back. First there was the the 1963 book by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda, and some creepy stories for grown-ups, too). Then there was the 1990 movie, starring Angelica Huston (and making a significant change to the ending). And now, CGI fantasy-master Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future”) gives us his version, starring two Oscar-winners and co-written with Kenya Barris of “Black-ish” and “Girls Trip.”

“Witches are as real as a rock in your shoe…They’re here and they live amongst us,” the narrator immediately identifiable as Chris Rock tells us. And “witches hate children. They get the same pleasure from squishing a child as you get from ice cream with butterscotch sauce and a cherry on top.”

Then we go back in time to 1968. The setting of the book and the first movie has been moved from Norway and England to a Black community in Alabama. Jahzir Bruno plays the unnamed boy whose parents are killed in an automobile accident in the first few minutes. His grandmother (Octavia Spencer) comes to get him. He’ll be living with her, in the house where his mother grew up. He describes her as “quick to give you a spanking if you deserved it or a hug if you need it.” She comforts him. And when he has a scary encounter with a gloved woman in a hat who offers him candy, she starts to tell him what she knows about witches.

She had her own encounter with a witch as a child, when one turned her best friend into a chicken. And so, to keep him safe, she takes him to a grand hotel. Unfortunately, it turns out the hotel is also hosting a convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, relishing the opportunity to vamp up a storm).

One element of the story that has not aged well is the way it dwells on the physical deformities of the witches, bald, with scabby scalps, huge, gaping mouths, claw hands, and no toes. Even though the witches are not human, the association of disabilities with evil is less palatable than it once was. (Anne Hathaway has apologized for the insensitivity of this portrayal.)

Zemeckis sometimes gets so caught up in the visual effects that he overlooks the story, but here the visuals are almost entirely in service of the story, especially after the boy is turned into a mouse (which, adorably, he quite likes) and we get to see things from his angle. Dahl’s story provides a strong foundation, and Spencer, who could easily have phoned in a role like this, gives it her substantial all. I’d still give the 1990 version the edge, but it is good to see the original ending restored and this is a worthy Halloween treat.

Parents should know that this film has fantasy peril and violence and some disturbing images. A child’s parents are killed in a car accident. Children are turned into mice. Witches have physical deformities including huge, scary, gaping mouths. There is some schoolyard language and there are understated references to racism of the era.

Family discussion: Why did the boy like being a mouse? What was the scariest moment in the movie? Why do the witches do what the Grand High Witch tells them?

If you like this, try: the 1990 film with Angelica Huston and the book by Roald Dahl, as well as the movies based on his other books, including “Matilda,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “The BFG”

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Bill and Ted Face the Music

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 5:32 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, mostly played for comedy
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020

Copyright 2020 Orion Pictures
I am pleased to report that Bill and Ted are still excellent. Bill and Ted Face the Music is the third in the series, 31 years after the original “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” where the two dim but sweet-natured would-be rockers from San Dimas managed to pass their high school history class by traveling through time in a telephone booth. They also learned that their destiny was to create a song that would unite the world. Two years later, in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” their adventures continued, including a visit to hell and a “Seventh Seal”-inspired encounter with Death. Much of the core cast of the original films returned, including Alex Winter (who also produced) as Bill, Keanu Reeves as Ted, William Sadler as Death, Hal London, Jr. as Ted’s stern father, and Amy Stoch as Missy, who was in high school with Bill and Ted but in the first film is married to Bill’s father.

In the present day, Bill and Ted are married to the medieval princesses who traveled through time with them in the earlier films, now played by Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays. Things are not going well. Bill and Ted still perform as the Wyld Stallyns, but not in arenas. Their current gig is at Missy’s latest wedding, to Ted’s younger brother Deacon (“SNL’s” Beck Bennett). Their performance of a song named something like “That Which Binds Us Through Time, The Chemical, Physical and Biological Nature of Love,” combines some of the strangest sounds known to music, even stranger in combination guttural throat singing, bagpipes, and a theramin is, at best mystifying to the wedding guests. Basically, they hate it. Their wives insist on marriage counseling (with the always-great Jillian Bell) and we get a sense of the problem when the guys cannot understand why “couples counseling” might not mean both couples at the same time.

Each couple has a daughter. Ted’s daughter is Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Bill’s is Thea (Samara Weaving, the niece of Hugo Weaving who was Reeves’ nemesis in the “Matrix” films). The girls are 24, still living at home, and spend all day listening to music. In other words, they take after their dads.

Bill and Ted are beginning to question whether they should just give up their music. But then Kelly (Kristen Schall) shows up in a futuristic, egg-shaped time traveling capsule. That song that was going to unite the world — they would have to produce and perform it that night or it would be the end of everything. “The Great Turntable is Tipping. Reality will collapse and time and space will cease to exist.”

Everyone ends up getting involved. The guys go forward in time to see if they can get the song from various future selves. (Boy, the people in charge of hair had some fun with that.) The princesses/wives explore the multiverse to see if there’s a happier ending. And Billie and Thea do what Bill and Ted did in the first film; they go back in history and pick up some help.

Some viewers will need to be brought up to date on the earlier films, as there are references that will delight the fans. Some younger viewers will need a history lesson about phone booths. (Of course Bill and Ted do their time traveling old school.) And some fans of the original many need to check with a younger member of the family to learn who Kid Cudi is. I hope all ages know who Dave Grohl is.

It’s all sweet, silly fun, with a conclusion that is likely to bring some tearing up from the parents in the audience, and make all Bill and Ted fans feel that this has been a very excellent adventure for us all.

Parents should know there is some mild language and some mostly comic peril and violence, including characters who are temporarily “killed” and sent to Hell.

Family discussion: Would you want to meet the future versions of yourself? What would you want to know?

If you like this, try: the two earlier “Bill and Ted” movies and the San Diego Comic-Con panel about the movie.

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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Posted on February 6, 2020 at 5:20 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 7, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 11, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

At last, the sisters are doing it for themselves, on screen and off. “Birds of Prey (and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”), it has the ladies of the DC universe band together when the guys (Batman and Joker) are (literally) out of the picture.

We all know that when you’ve been dumped, you’ll need some recovery time, and if that involves Cheez-Whiz straight from the can, we won’t judge. You’ll need to adjust your social media settings, too. In the case of Harley Quinn (co-producer Margot Robbie), that can mean blowing up what used to be your special place. As an observer notes, that’s how “she just publicly updated her relationship status.”

Unfortunately, in the case of Harley Quinn, whose relationship with impulse control has been even more volatile than her relationship with the madman she calls Mr. J, has made many, many enemies, helpfully identified by name and grievance on screen so we can keep up. Without Mr. J as protector, it’s olly olly oxen free for anyone who wants revenge.

As Harley causes even more trouble and tries to hide or protect herself from those coming after her, she comes across the sole survivor of a mob family who is now an assassin dedicated to killing every man responsible for her family’s murders. She is still figuring out a name and a purpose once her targets have all been wiped out but one thing she has completely figured out is the crossbow. She will be known as The Huntress, and she is played by the always-terrific Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is a chanteuse in a club run by mobster Roman Sonasis (Ewan McGregor) with his henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). When Roman learns that she has some mad fighting skills, he makes her his driver.

There is the young girl thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who picks the wrong pocket. Trying to get to the bottom of all of this is a tough cop named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who is too honest to get promoted. Over the course of the film, the female characters will not always be on the same side. Some even betray each other. But when a girl needs a hair tie (in the middle of a big fight scene in a super-creepy abandoned amusement park beyond the wildest nightmares of Scooby-Doo, well, sisterhood is powerful.

Perhaps not as fun as it wants to be, but the movie has high spirits and a refreshing perspective that goes a bit deeper than just grrrl power. The carnage (with disturbing images and sounds) is intense and Harley does not always find the sweet spot between deranged creepy and deranged endearing. Deadpool may be nutty and naughty, but he is true-hearted, an anti-hero who is more hero than anti. As mesmerizing as Robbie is in the role, the storyline might have worked better with one of the other characters as the lead. It’s fantabulous that she is emancipated, but now she has to decide who she wants to be.

Parents should know that this film includes constant and very graphic peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed, disturbing sounds and images, knives, crossbow, guns, explosives, chases, very strong and crude language, nude images, brief drug humor, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: How did the early experiences of Harley and Huntress affect the way they made decisions? How is this like and different from other superhero movies?

If you like this, try: “Deadpool” and the “Birds of Prey” television series

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Dolittle

Posted on January 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard langage
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Attempted murder by poison, action/animal related peril, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 18, 2020
Copyright Universal 2019

Dolittle” is mildly entertaining, silly and more than a little strange. It is loosely based on the original books, which also inspired the musical with Rex Harrison, featuring a two-headed llama-like creature called a pushmi-pullyu and an Oscar-winning song, and the modern-day-set remakes with Eddie Murphy. But mostly it’s a “we can do anything with CGI now, so let’s make a movie about a man who can understand animal language.” And that’s where the entertaining part comes in. It’s also where the odd and silly parts come in. For example, Robert Downey, Jr., who produced and plays the title character, speaks in a husky, oddly accented (Welsh?) voice for no particular reason. A significant extended scene involves giving an enema to a gigantic animal.

This version, set once again in the Victorian era, begins with Dolittle a recluse in the animal sanctuary given to him by the young queen in appreciation for his special gifts. Devastated by the death of his wife, a fearless explorer lost at sea, Dolittle is a mess, almost more of an animal than the creatures living with him, until the arrival of two young people. A boy named Tommy (Harry Collett) who refuses to hunt with his father accidentally wounds a squirrel and brings it to Dr. Dolittle for treatment. And Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives with an urgent request. The queen is critically ill and wants to see him.

Dolittle operates on the squirrel but refuses Lady Rose’s request until he learns that if the queen dies he will lose his home, an unnecessarily sour and distracting detail. And so the animals shave his beard, trim his hair, make him bathe, and accompany him to the palace. There, after consulting a small squid in the queen’s aquarium, he learns that she has been poisoned by one of her courtiers (Jim Broadbent), with the help of the court physician, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen). The only antidote is on a legendary — and uncharted — island, the very same one Lily Dolittle was seeking.

Dolittle, Tommy, and the animals take off to find it. So does Müdfly, who is determined to stop them and to get the antidote for himself. They have various adventures along the way, including a stop at an island ruled by the semi-barbaric King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who immediately throws Dolittle in prison because they have a history.

The movie never finds the right balance between comedy, adventure, and heart, probably reflecting the reported extensive reshoots following disappointing early screenings. But it is still watchable due to the sumptuous and imaginative production design by Dominic Watkins and the stellar voice talent for the CGI animal characters, especially Emma Thompson as Poly the wise and sympathetic parrot. Also fine are the bickering polar bear (John Cena) and ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), who find a way to become friends. Frances de la Tour provides the suitably imperious voice for a dragon and Ralph Feinnes is a surprisingly vulnerable lion. But my favorite was Jason Mantzoukas as the dragonfly.

Too much of the animals’ dialog is just silly (“You answer the door because you’re the only one with arms.” “That’s coming from the guy (dog) who loves the smell of butts”). Hugh Lofting, who created the character knew that it would always be fun to have a story about a person who could talk to the animals. But the various versions of the story sometimes forget that it is important to give them something worth saying.

Parents should know that this film includes action/animal-related peril, attempted murder by poison, chases, crotch hits, a sad offscreen death, schoolyard language, and potty humor.

Family discussion: What did we learn about the characters when they talked about their parents? How did listening to the dragon make a difference? What should people do when they cannot stop feeling sad or being afraid of being hurt?

If you like this, try; “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the musical “Doctor Dolittle”

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Bad Boys for Life

Posted on January 15, 2020 at 2:01 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, guns, grenades, bazookas
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 16, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 20, 2020
Copyright Columbia 2019

There’s a lot that’s hard to believe in “Bad Boys for Life” (not that we’re expected to), but the one I want to bring to your attention is the repeated assertion that this is one last time. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are back as the lovably bickering, impetuously rule-breaking buddy cops from the original Bad Boys movie 25 years ago and the sequel eight years later, and it is clear that they are not done yet.

Smith and Lawrence have the same immensely likable screen chemistry they did in the first film, though it is clear that Smith has much more range as an actor. We hardly have time to notice, however, as in the first five minutes of the movie we get to see a Porsche racing through the streets of Miami, some quippy brio (“We’re not just black. We’re cops, too. We’ll pull ourselves over later”), some skimpy bathing suits, a new baby, a prison break featuring a shootout and a witch’s curse.

That baby is the first grandchild for Marcus (Lawrence), the devoted family man, who is so moved by his becoming Pop-Pop that he decides to retire from the police force. Mike (Smith), the player with an upscale apartment no cop could afford (see above re believability) is furious. When Mike is shot by an assassin who is going after everyone involved in a criminal conviction from the past, Marcus stays by his side, and promises God that if Mike lives he will never be violent again. Once Mike recovers, however (with Marcus listed in his phone as Quitter), Mike persuades him to come back — say it with me — for one last time.

That will involve AMMO, a new high-tech police operation with the kind of high-tech surveillance and firepower that you might find in the Pentagon, run by Rita (Paola Nuñez), an officer with whom Mike has history. Mike wants to find the mysterious black-clad person on a black motorcycle who shot him. This is a challenge because, as a character says, “Who doesn’t want to kill him?” The Pepto-Bismal-chugging captain (Joe Pantoliano, also returning from the earlier films) tries to stop him, but the thing about Bad Boys is that they don’t follow the rules. Whatcha gonna do? Soon Mike is trading insults with the upstarts at AMMO, including Vanessa Hudgens and “The Sun is Also a Star’s” Charles Melton.

I’d estimate it is about one-third banter (we get some insults about getting older now) and two-thirds action, much of it very intense and very, very violent, with lots of blood, explosions, and heavy artillery. “I know ‘thou shalt not kill’ but these were bad guys” describes their view of law enforcement plus “We ride together. We die together. Bad boys for life.” (Someone does point out that they should think of themselves as bad men. Which may be why there’s also more crying than you normally see in this kind of movie. It’s dumb, and the action/comedy mix is not entirely successful given the carelessness about collateral damage and the outright carnage. But the charm is there and it is watchable, a summer movie in January. By the end, if you stay for that post-credit scene, you might just be ready to see what they do next.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and extended action, peril, and violence with very graphic and disturbing images, chases, explosions, fire, very strong and crude language, sexual references, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: What made Mike and Marcus good partners? How have the movies changed since the first one? If you and your friend had a go-to motto, what would it be?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Bad Boys” movies and the “Fast and Furious” series

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