Bullet Train

Posted on August 2, 2022 at 9:57 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very graphic peril and violence with spurting blood and many murders, guns, knives, poison, fire, crash, snake
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 5, 2022

Copyright 2022 Sony
The Japanese bullet train goes 200 miles per hour. Its namesake movie goes even faster. On the train is a briefcase stuffed with millions of dollars and a passenger list that includes an assortment of thieves and assassins and the kidnapped son of a crime kingpin called White Death. Action fans will understand that the over-the-top violence is exaggerated as an R-rated version of Looney Tunes, expertly crafted and often hilarious.

Brad Pitt is sensational as an all-purposes soldier of fortune trying to find something simpler and less violent than his previous jobs. His handler, Maria, tells him this is just the job for him. All he has to do is get on the train, grab the briefcase, and get off. She gives him the code name Ladybug. This is either to cheer him up or add some snark because he insists he is unlucky (as he steps into a puddle) and in Japan the ladybug is a symbol of good luck. Or both. Either way, that is the only name we know for him, an emotionally exhausted man described by another character as looking like every homeless white guy, trying to do better without having decided what better means.

At the train station he opens a locker to pick up the equipment Maria has left for him, but he decides to leave the gun behind. And he boards the train, reciting therapeutic mantras to remind himself to stay calm, determined to “put peace into the world” while all he has too do is steal a briefcase. The trick, though, is that it already belongs to someone to whom it is also valuable, and several other people who are equally experienced in smash and grab, emphasis on the smash, would also like to have it, too. There are assassins from all over, a veritable It’s a Small World of assassins.

I really want to avoid spoilers here, so I will not disclose the superstars who show up in small, funny cameos (you will probably recognize the voice of the Oscar-winner on the other side of the phone calls with Ladybug), the actor we don’t see without a mask until the last act, or some of the funniest twists. I’ll just say that stuntman-turned director David Leitch (“John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde”) is as good as it gets in fight scenes and these are a blast, and that there are some well-chosen needle drop songs on the soundtrack. The bullet train setting is also a lot of fun, with a quiet car, a car for families with young children, and a bar car, and stops of only one minute at each station.

I will, however, take a moment to discuss Brad Pitt, who shows once again that he never brings less than the best to every role. No one is better at precisely calibrating his own movie star charisma and here he plays off of it to hilarious effect. The acting in the stunt scenes is as important as the punches. As we have seen in Tarantino and some other films, countering shocking, graphic, brutality with transgressive but workmanlike casualness can be very funny. The entire cast is excellent, including Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as “the twins,” the assassins delivering (or trying to) the White Death’s son (Logan Lerman channeling Jared Leto) and the briefcase full of ransom money, Bad Bunny as a Mexican drug cartel operative, and Hiroyuki Sanada, Zazie Beetz as characters I won’t spoil.

Buckle up, everyone. This is what they’re talking about when they use the term “wild ride.”

Parents should know that this movie is non-stop action with guns, knives, poison, fire, a deadly snake, crashes, and many brutal and grisly deaths and disturbing and graphic images. A child is badly injured (but survives). Characters are hired assassins and crime kingpins and their henchmen. They use very strong language. There is a brief scene of nudity and sex.

Family discussion: Who are we rooting for in this story and how can you tell? What do you think of the Thomas the Tank Engine approach to classifying humanity? Why don’t we ever learn their real names?

If you like this, try: the book by Kotaro Isaka, the “John Wick” series, “Kill Bill,” “Boss Mode,” and “Shoot ’em Up” You might also enjoy a less violent film involving a crime and a train, “$” with Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn.

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Thor: Love and Thunder

Posted on July 7, 2022 at 8:10 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, action, language, partial nudity and some suggestive material
Profanity: S-words, mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, characters injured, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 8, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 26, 2022

Copyright 2022 Disney
Taika Watiti’s sly, understated. offbeat humor is a great match for Thor, a superhero who is literally a god with a post British accent. Thor could come across as stiff and stuffy if not for the combination of Watiti and Chris Hemsworth, who has the rare ability to be effortlessly hilarious while still being a completely believable superhero god. I’ve often said that superhero movies are made or lost based on the villains, not the heroes. On that basis, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is less successful. But it is so much fun along the way, and often genially goofy, two words that don’t usually apply to superhero movies, that it is satisfyingly entertaining.

The last time we saw Thor he was looking more like The Big Lebowski than a god of Asgard and his planet had been destroyed. He pulled himself together for “Avengers: Endgame” and New Asgard is now up and running under the rule of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Thor spends his days in quiet contemplation until he is called upon to save the world again, which he does with brio and then returns to his solitude. Asgard is a quaint little town by the water and has become a favorite tourist destination. One popular attraction is the re-enactment of some of the highlights of Asgardian history, with performers played by Matt Damon and Luke Hemsworth plus two I won’t spoil).

Meanwhile, Thor’s ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has Stage 4 cancer. And somehow she is called to or by the legendary Mjolnir, the once-shattered hammer that has re-assembled itself like the silvery guy in “Terminator 2.” This makes her into Thor, apparently in addition to, not instead of the Thor who was named by his father, Odin. One of the most endearingly goofy elements of the film is the way original Thor’s new weapon, the axe called Stormbreaker, is sensitive and a bit worried about its predecessor returning. Original Thor is better at sharing his feelings with his weapons than he is with human beings. I predict that Brene Brown will be using clips from this movie to illustrate future lectures about the importance of vulnerability.

And then, the bad guy. Christian Bale plays Gorr, who we first see as a devoted acolyte in a destroyed world. He has lost everything, including his daughter, but believes in the salvation and afterlife his religion has promised. When he learns that his god cares nothing for humans and there is no eternal life he grabs the Necrosword and the combination of grief, anger, betrayal, and the sword’s magic turns him into something of a Terminator of his own (though looking more like zombie Voldemort), with just one imperative — killing all the gods.

The action scenes are great fun and there are a lot of delightful small details you might miss the first time through, but is it the humor, the characters, and the warmth of their connection that stand out. Watiti returns as Thor’s sidekick Korg, his quiet, tentative voice an amusing counterpart to his enormous rock body. In the vast assemblage of gods, Russell Crowe appears as a lightning bolt-throwing Zeus. Thompson and Portman have great chemistry and Hemsworth is as good at comedy as he is at looking like a Norse god, which is as good as it gets. Korg tells us that coming out of his depression, Thor went from dad bod to god bod. It is good to see him here going from sad guy to, well, you’ll see.

NOTE: Stay through the end of the credits to see two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this movie has many s-words and extended peril and comic-book style action violence with many characters injured, cancer treatment, and a sad death. There is also a brief flash of rear nudity.

Family questions: What would you choose for your catch phrase? How do you make sure you don’t wall off your feelings after being hurt?

If you like this, try: the other “Thor” movies and Watiti’s “What We Do in the Shadows” film and television series

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Lightyear

Posted on June 16, 2022 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi peril and cartoon-style violence, sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 12, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
Watch carefully in Lightyear for a moment just for those kids born in in the 80s who were the first digital natives. A cartridge inserted into a computer deck is not working correctly, and Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans taking over from Tim Allen) has to fix it. What does he do? Say it with me, people in their 30s: He blows on the exposed tape side and re-inserts it. Now, that may not have worked in real life, but thankfully, it works for Buzz.

This kind of detail is what we expect from Pixar, along with superbly crafted films that make us laugh, gasp, and cry. We’re reminded at the beginning of “Lightyear” that in 1995 Andy was given a Buzz Lightyear toy from his favorite movie. And then we’re told that this, what we ae about to see, is that movie. It doesn’t need to overdo the 90s references, but once in a while, like the blowing on the cartridge, we get a reminder that the lovable nerds at Pixar know us all too well.

This is not the toy Buzz Lightyear who has some existential confusion and thinks he is the actual character. This is the actual character, a lantern-jawed space ranger, the All-American boy next door type, brave, loyal, extremely good at his job, and stubbornly independent. His closest friend is fellow Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). But he does not work well with others, especially rookies.

Buzz and Alisha are on a long-term space journey. They stop to investigate an uncharted planet and, as anyone who has ever clocked a red shit on “Star Trek” knows, it turns out to be much more treacherous than they expected (though, thankfully, to have breathable air). As they are on their way back to “the turnip,” which is what they call their rocket due to its shape, the rocket is so badly damaged they are stuck. All of the 1200 passengers who have been in suspended animation will have to be awakened to find that they are marooned, with no way to return to the mission or go home.

Buzz is determined to save the day. He undertakes a very dangerous test flight. For him, it is four minutes. But, due to the difference between time on a planet and time in space, he returns to find that four years have passed for Alicia and everyone else. Things have changed. The space travelers have built a community. Alicia is engaged to a scientist. People have adapted. Buzz feels responsible for getting them stuck and he is determined to keep trying until he gets the necessary mix of elements to give the rocket the fuel it needs. But each test run means another four years. He comes back and Alecia and her wife are expecting a child. He comes back again and the child is four years old. His life is passing in minutes and his friend’s is passing in years, in decades.

Other than Alicia, Buzz’s only companion is a robot cat. Think a combination of R2D2, C-3Po, and Captain Marvel’s Flerken. Ultimately he will find a group of people who do not have the training, discipline, or skills Buzz has always relied on in his missions. All of the difficulty he has had in relying on others is multiplied just as it has become necessary to trust them.

The reveal near the end did not work as well for me, but I especially liked the way it deals with two issues we don’t often see in movies for children, how to move on after making a mistake, learning to see the best in people, and learning to rely on others. As always with Pixar, the movie is filled with endearing characters and witty and telling details, brilliantly designed settings, sublime silliness, and exciting action scenes and yes, you will cry. It is easy to understand why this was Andy’s favorite movie.

Parents should know that this film has extended sci-fi peril and violence with scary robots and sci-fi weapons. There is a very sad death. A devoted gay couple is portrayed in an admirably matter-of-fact, low-key manner with grace and dignity.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Buzz to accept help? What is the best way to make up for mistakes?

If you like this, try: The “Toy Story” movies, “Galaxy Quest,” and the old Flash Gordon serials.

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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:27 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening images, action, intense sequences of violence, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language, s-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugged drinks
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, scary monsters, zombie, disturbing and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 6, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
The year of the multi-verses continues with the latest Marvel entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by master of horror Sam Raimi (and with a special cameo by Raimi’s favorite actor, Bruce Campbell). As the MCU continues to evolve and expand, this movie builds not just on all of the Marvel movies that have come before. There are references to Thanos turning half the population to dust and to the most recent Spider-Man movie (where Strange played a key role). It also helps a lot to have seen the television series “Wandavision,” with Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, a sometime Avenger with, even by Avenger standards, extraordinary powers. She can create almost anything and in that series, her response to the tragic loss of her love, Vision, was to create an entire world, in part inspired by the videos of American television series she saw as a child in fictional Communist Bloc country Sokovia, where she and Vision lived in sit-com suburbia.

It begins in medias res, a battle with a very big monster who seems to be made of electrified spaghetti. There is a teenage girl and a choice, something that would destroy her but save the world, at least until the next monster. Doctor Strange, the famously hyper-rational, often arrogant surgeon-turned sorcerer with the greying temples and magical cloak, has to decide. What will he do? What should he do?

He makes a choice and then he wakes up. It was a dream. Or maybe it was not. He will learn that it was a peak into the multiverse, the parallel versions of our world we got a glimpse of in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when two other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) and a handful of their villains joined together in our world. There is a way to physically enter the other verses and there is a way to “dream-walk,” to inhabit another verse’s version of you and substitute your thoughts and emotions. And that teenager, America Chavez (a terrifically natural Xochitl Gomez of “The Babysitter’s Club”) shows up with the key to some of that verse-hopping.

Strange seeks out Wanda to ask for her help. They walk through her peaceful grove of apple blossoms and he tells her they smell “real.” She assures him they are, that she is done with world-building. The meaning of “real” is a theme of the film as the different versions of the characters in the multi-verses present different ideas of reality, including free food and a verse where everyone is paint, plus some surprising switches in roles, personalities, hair color and style (Strange with a ponytail?), and destinies. And there are monsters, including a very cool one that looks like a gigantic corrugated octopus with a head that’s one enormous eyeball, like a spider-y band member from The Residents.

That’s as spoiler-y as I want to get. So I will stick to some general comments. Cumberbatch makes Strange vivid, layered, even a little bit vulnerable, and the interactions with the woman he loves, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and America have a nice symmetry that helps us see Strange work through his options, both for fighting the villain and for moving forward in his own life. The visual design is wonderfully imaginative, each verse filled with enthralling details. The action scenes are well staged, Raimi brings a tingly horror twinge to the mood, and Danny Elfman’s music is everything you want a superhero soundtrack to be. It feels good to be back in the IMAX MCU.

What keeps it under the level of the best of these films, though, is what has been an increasing issue in superhero movies. The powers are not clearly defined, so the stakes are not clearly defined. It is not enough to say it’s about the fate of the world or even the fate of America (the person, though of course the country, too). It feels like too many times that we’ve been told that someone has ultimate power, and then someone comes along with more ultimate power. (I did think it was very funny when we saw the Infinity Stones carelessly tossed into a low-level bureaucrat’s desk drawer in the “Loki” series.) I’m not saying every superhero has to be Superman, with his abilities and vulnerability clearly defined. But this film’s search for two artifacts as the keys to resolving the conflict are a distraction from the level of mythic existential conflict this movie tries for. It is a particularly weak moment when Strange, whose power comes from intensive training, resorts to the old “just figure out how to use your power in the next nano-second.” The special effects are state-of-the-art but there’s only so much they can do with characters who just shoot electricity at each other.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this is at the upper edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (s-words) and extensive comic book/fantasy peril and violence with some disturbing and graphic images, including a disintegrating zombie. Characters are drugged.

Family discussion: Is it ever right to sacrifice one person to save many? (Look up “The Trolly Problem.”) What does it mean to always want to be the one holding the knife?

If you like this, try: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “Another Earth”

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The Bad Guys

Posted on April 21, 2022 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated.PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon action-style law enforcement peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 22, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
“The Bad Guys,” based on the popular series of graphic novels by Aaron Blabey, is an adorable animated film about guys who are not as bad as they think. They are seen as the scariest animals on earth, but even when they are committing crimes, they do not realize that they have good qualities, too. They are loyal friends, for example, and honest some of the time. We first see Wolf (Sam Rockwell) and Snake (Mark Maron) in a diner, where Wolf not only celebrates Snake’s birthday but even when there’s no one to pay for the meal, they make sure to pay for it anyway.

And then they rob the bank across the street. Okay, they’re bad. That could be, though, because they are just behaving the way people expect. Wolves, sharks, snakes, tarantulas, and piranhas have bad reputations. So they’re just living up or rather down to what the humans around them expect.

Adults watching with their children may notice the resemblance to some very adults-only movies, the first scene a tip of the cinematic chapeau to “Pulp Fiction,” not just the diner setting but the rhythm of the dialogue and the editing. Like the “Sesame Street” versions of adult content, it is there to entertain the grown-ups, but it is also there because even toned-down, it is fun to watch.

“The Bad Guys” has the fun of another genre kids do not often see, the heist film, with all kinds of problem-solving, setbacks, and teamwork. In addition to Wolf, the cool, Danny Ocean planner-type, and Snake, an escape artist, the gang also includes, of course, a tech whiz, Awkwafina as Tarantula, and eight legs come in very handy working on keyboards. Shark (Craig Robinson) is the master of disguise. And Piranha (Anthony Ramos) is the muscle. (The movie characters wisely have more diversity than the books.) The voice talent is superb. Not all actors can do voice work. It makes sense; they’re used to being able to rely on their faces and bodies to express emotion. But Sam Rockwell gives one of his all-time best performances as Wolf, perfectly matching the cool sophistication of the character and his moments of doubt and vulnerability. The animation is outstanding, stylish and dynamic when it needs to be, touches of anime, especially with the police officer voiced by Alex Borstein, and a bit of a hand-drawn feel to prevent CGI over-perfection.

There are some fun surprises and twists along the way and of course some lessons on the satisfactions of being a good guy. But not too good; we want to leave room for some sequels.

Parents should know that while it is all done with humor, this is a movie about characters who commit crimes, mostly theft. There are some chases and some cartoon-style peril and a mind-control machine, but no one gets hurt. The movie also includes some rude humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What makes someone bad or good? Why is it hard for the bad guys to consider others’ rights and feelings? Which is your favorite bad guy character and why?

If you like this, try: the book and its sequels and “Zootopia”

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