Black Widow

Posted on July 5, 2021 at 4:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 Some Language|Intense Violence/Action|Thematic Material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, references to torture and abuse of children, characters are assassins, chases, explosions, guns
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2021

Copyright 2021 Marvel Studios
We’ve waited a long time to find out how Natasha became the Black Widow. While we got to know the male Avengers through individual origin stories about Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man, Natasha was different. We first saw the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tied to a chair looking very much the victim as she was confronted by some vetough and powerful-looking men. But we learn, as they do, that she is very much in control of the situation. We also learn that unlike the other Avengers, she has no special powers from a radioactive spider-bite or government potion, some fancy equipment, or being born a god. She has her wits and courage and some of what Liam Neeson might call a very special set of skills. Through the Avengers films we saw that she was the heart of the group, kind, empathetic, willing to sacrifice herself out of a sense of integrity and, perhaps, redemption.

We wanted to know more. But it took time to persuade Marvel Studios, and then, just as we were all ready to get Natasha a film of her own, its release was delayed in the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic, so it was not until now, a year later, that it is finally here. Even with all that has gone on, “Black Widow” quickly puts us back in the world of the Avengers. And, it continues Marvel’s cleverest strategy, allowing each character to inhabit a world that is distinctive in tone and atmosphere as it maintains a clear, strong central sense of its world.

Who could have guessed that we would find Natasha in 1995 Ohio? But that is where we start, a young girl with blue hair (Ever Anderson, a believable young Johansson) riding her bicycle home at dinner time. She greets her younger sister affectionately, and then, when the littler girl hurts her knee, their mother, like mothers since mothers began, kisses it to make it better. But this mother does something a little different. She tells her daughters that pain makes you stronger. And then what seems like a typical suburban family dinner turns out more than a little different. The father comes home and tells the family something they have clearly prepared for has happened and they have to leave right away. And they do leave, the house and the country, in an exciting, if improbably escape. We will soon learn that this may not meet any traditional definition of “family” at all. Indeed, questions about what is family and what we need from families is as central to this film as the chases, fights, exotic locations, and fight scenes.

We skip ahead 21 years from that wild escape. Natasha is living off the grid following the “divorce” of the Avengers. She is considered an enemy following the assassination of King T’Chaka of Wakanda in “Captain America: Civil War.” But a package from Yelena (Florence Pugh) brings her back into the fight. Starting with a fight with Yelena herself, one of the film’s highlights. The scenes with the two of them crackle and bolster hope that the rumors of a Yelena affiliation with the Avengers.

Director Cate Shortland balances the action scenes — a prison break is a highlight — with family moments that are sometimes very funny (wait for Yelena on The Pose, and David Harbour as Natasha’s closest equivalent to a “good father”) and sometimes touching (Rachel Weisz as the mother equivalent, a pig-experimenting scientist who takes time to add a dramatic smokey eye when she dons a jumpsuit for action).

And of course there is a powerful adversary with a high-tech lair and a private army that holds the key to Natasha’s persona. It tells you all you need to know that those scenes are fine, but will likely leave you waiting a little impatiently for the next moments with the family, reminding us again that family may be frustrating, may even be dysfunctional, but those we are born into and those we choose are still where home is.

Parents should know that as with all superhero movies, this included extended peril and action, which characters injured and killed. There is some strong language and references to forced sterilization.

Family discussion: Why did Natasha take a different path than other people around her? Is there a key to unlocking fear?

If you like this, try: the Avengers movies and some of Johansson’s other films like “Jojo Rabbit,” “Her,” and “Hail, Ceasar”

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F9

Posted on June 22, 2021 at 8:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, action, sequences of violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Beer
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril ad violence, shooting, explosions, martial arts, many people killed or injured
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Universal
Let’s be real, if we can use a word like “real” to describe a series of films that parted ways with reality at least six or seven movies ago. But, knowing that, if you’re still here and I’m still here, we’ve pretty much agreed that’s okay and so the usual information potential ticket-buyers look for in a movie review is not really relevant. So, we can do what this movie does, and cut to the chase.

Here’s what you need to know. Director Justin Lin and his co-producer/star Vin Diesel know why we’re here; we want to see some crazy action scenes with characters we know so well that when Dom says once again that he doesn’t have friends; he has family, we almost feel that we’re part of the family now, too. So, “F9” delivers what the fans want, which is more and wilder action, and a bit more family, too. In fact, this time we get some backstory, with teenage brother and sister Dom (Diesel) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) and their dad, race car driver Jack Toretto (JD Pardo). It turns out there’s another brother, too, Jakob (Finn Cole). And we get to see how a tragedy on the racecourse leads to the brothers going in different directions. Jakob comes back into the story as John Cena.

If you’re a casual fan, all you need to know is that this movie has a lot of fun, if highly improbable, action scenes, including Vin Diesel as a passenger in a crazy car chase through London with none other than Dame Helen Mirren at the wheel. If you’re really into the series, you’ll want to know that many other favorite characters return, some more surprisingly than others. Also, if you’re really into the series you already know that the third movie in the series is the eighth in the chronology (also the first directed by Lin). That movie ended with another tragic exploding car death, of a mentor named Han (Sung Kang). But if we’ve learned one thing from this series, it is that sometimes people you think were either dead or bad turn out to be neither.

Two scenes I particularly loved will be the best litmus test for your decision on whether to buy a ticket (and if you do, please make it the Dolby experience). We’ve all seen fights before. We’ve seen fights where our two guys take on six bad guys. We’ve probably seen fights in the back of a big moving van, but here’s where the “Fast and Furious” franchise says to themselves, “How can we make things even more interesting?” And at some point someone says, “Let’s have the fight take place when the van is being (a) being chased by more bad guys, (b) being driven by someone who has never driven before, and (c) carrying the world’s most powerful electro-magnet, which is being turned on and off, sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. Wow.

The other scene has Roman, the comic relief character played by the almost-impossibly handsome Tyrese, says something that does not quite break the fourth wall between the characters and the audience but bends it a little. He mentions the un-mentionable — somehow no matter how many of the most lethal weapons ever conceived are shooting and exploding all around them, no matter how outnumbered they are, no matter how many impossible jumps they attempt to make in vehicles, somehow they all walk away without a scratch. Could it be, he wonders, that they’re not human? The real-life answer is that they’re not; they’re fictional characters. His conjecture is, maybe, that they could be un-killable? The real-life answer to that one is yes, as long as people keep buying tickets to the sequels.

In another scene, a character says, “If this was a movie, this would be when….” just to remind us that they know we know.

They can’t make the title any shorter. What’s the next one going to be called, just F? Will there be another “Hobbs & Shaw?” A spin-off about Dom’s early days? If they feature Helen Mirren and a Pontiac Fiero shot into space or whatever even crazier stuff they can dream up, I’m in.

NOTE: Stay for the mid-credits sequence for another familiar face.

Parents should know that this film includes constant action and peril including teenagers witnessing the death of a parent in a fiery crash and endless shoot-outs and chases, one through a minefield. Characters use strong language and drink beer. Bad guys plot world domination.

Family discussion: When does someone deserve a second chance? Should Letty have called Mia?

If you like this, try: the other films in the series, especially “Tokyo Drift” and “Hobbs & Shaw.”

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Luca

Posted on June 16, 2021 at 1:55 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Disability issues, diversity a theme of the film
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright Disney Pixar 2021
I’ll get to the details in a moment, the story, the characters, the music, the themes, and of course the inevitable Pixar movie question — Will it make you cry? But first, maybe because of the whole cooped up inside the house for more than a year thing, I have to tell you about the sunlight on the water in “Luca,” Pixar’s film set on the coast of Italy. As Carlos Saldanha did with Brazil in “Rio,” director Enrico Casarosa brings us his deep love for the place he grew up, and every moment brims with tender affection for the Mediterranean setting. This movie may not make you cry but for sure it will make you sigh in appreciation. And it has a spit take for the ages.

Luca, voiced by Jacob Tremblay of “Room” and “Wonder,” lives under the sea off the coast of a fishing village called Portorosso. This is not the underwater place of Nemo or Ariel, but its own very distinctive and fully-imagined world. Luca is not a merman or a fish, exactly. He is a young sea monster, the son of loving parents Daniela (Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo (Jim Gaffigan). He is responsible and well-behaved, herding a school of fish. But like Ariel, he is curious about the world outside the water and wants to learn more about what his family calls “land monster town.” His mother cautions him that it is dangerous. But he meets Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer of “Shazam”), who shows him that sea monsters turn human when they are out of the water and introduces him to some of the wonders of the human world: sunlight, gravity, music, gelato, and…Vespas. Alberto’s dream is to have a Vespa and explore the world.

The — I’m just going to call them boys — try to build a Vespa on their own. But when they meet a spirited human girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) who tells them about a three-part race with a Vespa as the prize, they join forces. This being Italy, the three parts are: swimming, biking, and eating pasta.

But the five-time previous champion, a bully named Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) will do whatever it takes to win again. A single drop of water turns the boys back into their sea monster form, so when the sky starts leaking, I mean when it rains….well, it’s a challenge. Luca’s parents have taken human form to find him, tossing water on every boy they see.

The voice talent is exceptional, with Tremblay, Grazer, and Berman creating distinctive, endearing characters. A brief betrayal is shocking and dismaying because we are invested in their friendship. The film manages to weave in a number of themes with subtlety and insight as the character navigate their differences, as parents learn to love and let go and friends discover that you can stay friends even if you take different directions. Now excuse me while I put on some Puccini and cook pasta for dinner.

NOTE: Watch the credits for some sketches that continue the story and an extra scene with a character voiced by Sasha Baron Cohen.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and some violence. A disabled character is presented as strong, confident, and capable. A character has divorced parents and divides her time between their homes and another child is abandoned by his parents. Differences and acceptance are a theme of he movie. And while underwater Luca is a protective guardian of fish, somehow on land he has no problem helping Giulia’s father catch a boatful so he can sell them.

Family discussion: When should you say, “Silencio, Bruno!” and when should you listen to “Bruno?” Who in your life is an underdog? What do you do when friends want different things? Why did Alberto tell Luca to leave?

If you like this, try: “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory”

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Cruella

Posted on May 26, 2021 at 5:13 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, character gets drunk in response to stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-style peril and violence, murder and references to murder and attempted murders, child feels responsible for death of parent, characters are thieves and con artists
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 29, 2021

Copyright Disney 2021
“Cruella” has the same problem as “Maleficent.” Origin stories of iconic villains have to make the characters relatable enough to hold our interest but also damaged enough to lead them toward the most despicable cruelty. So it never decides whether Cruella is some sort of Jekyll and Hyde character or a “Bad Seed” struggle between nature and nurture.

“Cruella” has some pleasures, particularly the performances of the two Emmas, Stone and Thompson, as the title character and her own ultra-wicked nemesis. But it never resolves that problem, and it sits uneasily in the PG-13 space, too dark for children who are fans of the original animated film with Betty Lou Gerson as the husky-voiced Cruella or its live-action remake with Glenn Close. And it is too cartoony for most of the audience old enough to see it.

Our anti-heroine begins life as Estella, also the name of the Dickens character who is raised to be cruel by Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. But this Estella is raised by a loving, understanding single mother (Emily Beecham as Catherine), who recognizes that Estella is a bit different, and not just because of her striking hair: jet black on one half of her head and snow white on the other. The kids at school bully her, except for Anita, who becomes her friend. But Estella can’t stay out of trouble. She seems to like trouble. She gets kicked out of school, and her mother decides they should move to London. They stop on the way there so Catherine can ask an old acquaintance for some money. But she is killed in a fall, and Estella believes it is her fault. She is left with no one to care for her.

She makes it to London and meets up with a couple of Artful Dodger types, Horace and Jasper. They invite her to share their home in an abandoned building and soon they are picking pockets and, as they get older, coming up with more complicated ways to steal. But Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and when she turns 18 (now played by Stone) Jasper (Joel Fry) helps her get an entry-level job at the legendary Liberty of London, where the closest she gets to fashion is scrubbing the bathrooms. But some mishaps bring her to the attention of the country’s imperious fashion impresario, The Baroness (Emma Thompson). At first, Estella just wants to do a good job. But various developments and revelations bring out the fury and, it must be said, the megalomania and cruelty that does not necessarily make sense in the context of what we’ve seen so far but gets her where she needs to be for the original story. Cruella (as she now calls herself) goes from being somewhere between Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist to being, well, the meanest movie villain of all time.

And she has some pretty fabulous gowns along the way. The Disney design team never fails to bring their magic. And it was a very shrewd idea to set the film in the moment as the swinging London of the 60s is moving into the punk era of the 70s with a soundtrack that includes a bunch of bangers. The movie is not very good but much of it is fun to watch.

Thompson is clearly having a ball playing a character who could fit the description of the character she played in “Much Ado About Nothing,” “My Lady Disdain.” She is a kind of “Devil Wears Prada” boss known as The Baroness. (It’s not a coincidence that both films share writer Aline Brosh McKenna). The Baroness rules her fashion line with a ruthlessness that makes “Devil Wears Prada’s” Miranda Priestly look like Little Miss Muffet. (Gosh, I hope we don’t have to sit through any of their origin stories some day.) And Stone does her considerable best with a character who does not make much sense.

Many years ago, a poll of the most evil villains of all time put Cruella De Vil at the very top, ahead of Hannibal Lecter. It’s right there in her name! She wanted to murder 99 puppies to make a coat! (Dodie Smith, who wrote the charming book 101 Dalmatians, was inspired to create the character of Cruella by an actress friend who admired Smith’s Dalmatian puppies and jokingly suggested their fur would make an elegant coat.) Cruella was the most fun when that was all she was, a wealthy lady with a husky voice who wanted to make a coat out of puppy fur. What a shame that the original animated Cruella was a more vibrant character than anyone in this film.

Parents should know that this movie has some dark themes. A child sees the murder of her mother and blames herself. Orphans band together as thieves and never find homes. A character gets drunk to deal with stress. A character admits to murdering more than one person. The story includes toxic and cruel behavior.

Family discussion: If you were going to change your name, what name would you pick? Why do Jasper and Horace do what Estella tell them to? Why is Anita the only girl who is friendly to Estella?

If you like this, try: the original animated film and the book by Dodie Smith

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Wonder Woman 1984

Posted on December 21, 2020 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and sequences of action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: March 30, 2021

Copyright 2020 Warner Brothers
You may wonder why Wonder Woman is not as wonder-ful this time around. Part of that is attributable to shrinking it from big-screen theatrical release to home screens. We feel that right away in the bravura opening sequence, a flashback with Diana Prince as a young girl competing with adult Amazonian women in an athletic event like the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course if it was also a triathlon. But the bigger problem is in the fundamentals, the storyline and characters.

The first Wonder Woman was exceptionally well-conceived and executed, a triumph for director Patty Jenkins after some lackluster films from DC Comics. The WWI setting added interest, especially seeing Diana’s response to learning about the world outside of her idyllic woman-only community of Amazonian warriors. The stakes were clear and compelling and the villain was genuinely scary.

This sequel, set in 1984 for no particularly compelling reason, has entertaining moments and fun action sequences but the stakes are not as visceral and the villains are not as interesting.

As a resident of the Washington DC area, I got a special kick out of the re-creation of the 1980’s look of Georgetown and some of the other locations and tried not to pay too much attention to the details they got wrong. I can promise you, no one who works at the Smithsonian would think of touching any of their artifacts without gloves and other protective equipment, much less letting anyone, even a major contributor who knows how to flirt, take one home. But that is what happens when an item with crystals ends up at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where Diana (Gal Gadot) is now working as an expert.

Now, I’m not asking for realism in a genre that includes radioactive spider bites and infinity stones, but ideally the McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is the story is about — the formula, the gold, the nuclear codes, whatever) has to be simple enough not to interfere with the plot but specific enough to make the threat interesting, and that means we have to understand a little bit about how it works, why it is important, and what it takes to defeat it. It’s more fairy tale than comic book, a wishing stone crystal thingy more like “be careful what you wish for” stories like The Monkey’s Paw (which gets a shout-out in the film) or King Midas’ power to turn all he touched to gold.

That’s not a very good McGuffin and the villains are disappointing, too. There is a guy who has informercials about how to be rich on television, Maxwell Lord played by guy-behind-the-Mandelorian-helmet Pedro Pascal, who wants, well, pretty much everything. Making him in the oil business is a nice 80’s touch. And there’s the mousy museum curator Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig), who wants to be just like Diana. The muddled elements of their storylines are reflected in an absurd flashback that is supposed to make us, what, feel sorry for him? Understand his “Cat’s in the Cradle” problem? And the Capra-esque conclusion is not the “we are the world” moment they hope for.

Then there’s Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. As you may remember, he died heroically in the first movie. So there’s a real “Bobby Ewing in the shower” moment (another 80’s reference?) to bring him back. I’m all for putting Chris Pine in every movie ever, but again, the way this happens is not thought all the way through and it is impossible not to feel uneasy about the way the characters overlook the real-world consequences of his return for so much of the storyline. I did get a kick out of having the guy do the trying on clothes montage, though, for once. And the post-credit appearance from a most-welcome addition to the cast.

Gadot is an enormously appealing screen presence but this storyline is not a good fit with her abilities as an actress or a movie star. This is a sadder, wiser Diana, more than 60 years after the first film, but at times she just seems emptier.

Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve seen a comic book movie, but I found it entertaining despite all of the narrative shortcomings. Just hoping the next chapter is more wonder-ful.

Parents should know that this movie has extended comic book/action-style peril and violence and a sad death.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Max spend more time with his son? Did Diana envy Barbara?

If you like this, try: “Wonder Woman” and the DC Comics. Adult fans will enjoy Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, about the remarkable story of the man who created the character.

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