Black Panther

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 6:38 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book-style peril and violence, guns, fistfights, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 14, 2018
Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda forever! And all hail writer/director Ryan Coogler, the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, and everyone who helped to bring this next-level, majestic, and wildly entertaining superhero movie to life.

Quick primer for those unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe: Black Panther, the first major black comic book superhero, lives in a self-sufficient, almost completely hidden African country called Wakanda. An American CIA field agent describes it as a poor, undeveloped country: “textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” That is how they want to be seen by the world. In reality, thanks to a meteor that landed there in prehistoric times, they are the world’s only source of a metal called vibranium, which is extremely powerful, and which has been the basis for the world’s most advanced technology. Because Wakanda is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountains and rainforests, they have never been colonized and had very little interaction with the rest of the world. When they did, it did not go well. King T’Chaka spoke to the UN in “Captain America: Civil War,” and was assassinated. After a brief scene set in the past, we begin the story when his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take over as king.

Much of the film takes place in Wakanda, gloriously imagined by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, reflecting extensive research into African design. It is worth seeing the film a second time just to revel in the wonderfully vibrant shapes and colors, and in the African landscape.

Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda’s all-female military is called the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira). She advises T’Challa about a mission outside of Wakanda, where he is going to rescue his one-time girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who has gone undercover and has been captured by warlords. “Don’t freeze,” Okoye tells T’Challa. “I never freeze,” he replies. But he does. That’s the effect Nakia has on him. At first, she is angry that he interrupted her mission. But then he tells her that he wants her there when he becomes king, and she is glad to agree.

When they return, we see him honor his mother (Angela Bassett, regal and steadfast) and get teased by his sister, the tech whiz Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is this movie’s version of James Bond’s Q, except that she does not just provide the cool gadgets; she invents them. Her motto seems to be what she tells her brother: “Just because something works does not mean it can’t be improved.” That comment, made as a gentle taunt to a brother who is not as comfortable with change as she is, is just one example of the way that this film is able to raise profound issues in a way that resonates but is never heavy-handed or distracting. And the way T’Challa responds to being teased like the admonition not to freeze, helps to humanize the brilliant, brave, handsome, wealthy, powerful superhero.

T’Challa wants to continue to keep Wakanda away from the troubles of the rest of the world. Nakia tells him that they are obligated to share what they have to help protect others. She says, “I can’t be happy here knowing there are people out there who have nothing.” Of course, they are both right, and this conflict is reflected throughout the film in a way that is remarkably nuanced and thoughtful, not just for a superhero movie but in any context.

As I have often said, superhero movies depend more on the villain than the hero, and this one has one of the all-time greats. Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s two previous films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is nothing less than mesmerizing here, playing a man who represents the “other” to T’Challa, but who is connected to him as well. The film touches lightly but with insight on the difference between being an African, raised in a country where everyone is black and unqualifiedly patriotic, if insular, and being an African-American, deeply conflicted about the relationship with “home,” but better able to understand the plight of others. It touches on other vital contemporary issues like refugees and radicalization and it is all completely organic to the story.

And it is a full-on superhero movie, with a wild chase through an Asian city some very cool stunts, and a huge climactic fight scene involving a massive battle and at least two different modes of transportation, not including the battle rhinos. Yes, I said battle rhinos. I know, right?

The supporting cast includes an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), a rare on-screen appearance by motion-capture master Andy Serkis with his Tolkien co-star Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, Forest Whitaker as a priest, Winston Duke as the leader of on of Wakanda’s five tribes, and “This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown as a guy you’re better off not knowing too much about until you see the movie, which I hope you do, more than once. You’ll want to be a part of Wakanda, too.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive comic book-style action violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, spears, hand-to-hand combat, chases, explosions, and some strong language.

Family discussion: If T’Challa and Erik had grown up in each other’s environments, how would they be different? How should Wakanda resolve the conflict between tradition and innovation? Is it true that it is hard for a good man to be a good king? Why?

If you like this, try: the Black Panther comics and the Avengers movies

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Fifty Shades Freed

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 6:36 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including kidnapping, punching, knife, gun, chase
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 7, 2018

Copyright 2017 Universal
“The worse sin passion can commit is to be joyless,” wrote Dorothy Sayers. And Fifty Shades Freed is Exhibit A. It’s more of an endless perfume commercial than a story, with beautiful people smooching (and more) in a series of increasingly luxurious settings and modes of transportation. Viewers may more likely to find their breath taken away by the Birkin bag Ana carries than the licking-ice-cream-off-Christian’s-chest scene, the “You own this?” about the fancy private airplane response, “We own this” more than “meet me in the Red Room of pain.”

These are people who are supposed to be exceptionally successful at their jobs who are somehow not especially committed to them or particularly good at them. Anna is a college drop-out now elevated to editor at the publishing company that happens to be owned by her new husband, but entirely on her merits, but the job itself is one of those cutesy Hallmark Christmas movie-type careers where all she has to do is congratulate her hunky author on his success and ask him gently about the next book and tell an assistant to increase the font size on a cover. More important, these are people who share a deep kink connection who are pretty, to use their term, vanilla. Anything at all interesting about the issue of the power dynamics between Ana and Christian is so soft-focus that it barely registers.

It seems Ms. James ran out of ideas about a book and a half ago. All they’ve got left is sex in this and that ultra-luxurious location (more shelter porn than porn porn here) interspersed with some very random thriller moments as a figure from the past wants to destroy the perfect prettiness of the romance. This gives us an opportunity for a chase scene on a mountain road that turns out to be, like so much in the film, foreplay, plus some not at all tense would-be thriller moments and one pretty funny joke.* The tedium is occasionally lessened by some pop song montages. The music is not that great, but it is better than the dialogue. And then, the final whack of the cinematic riding crop, the utterly unnecessary remix montage featuring highlights of the films that we were hoping to have forgotten.

*New variation of the Gothika rule: I will give away the joke to anyone who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com to save you the time and money of seeing the film.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive and explicit sexual references and situations with some BDSM activity, nudity, some strong language, alcohol, and peril and violence including kidnapping, a gun, knives, and punching.

Family discussion: Why did Ana object to Christian’s behavior in the red room on one occasion? What made each of them jealous?

If you like this, try: “9 1/2 Weeks”

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Peter Rabbit

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 11:11 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor and action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, explosions, electrocutions, references to sad parental deaths and killing animals, human character collapses and dies
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 30, 2018

Copyright 2017 Sony
We’re only six weeks in, and we’ve already had two live action/animation adaptations of beloved British classics of children’s literature, both starring members of the Gleeson family. One will go down in history as an example of how to do it right and the other, if it must remembered at all, will be the example of how to do it wrong. For the record, Paddington 2, starring Brendan Gleeson, captured the gentle charm of the stories because it trusted its source material and it trusted its audience. But “Peter Rabbit,” based on the books and paintings by Beatrix Potter, tries to make the classic story of a bunny who ignores his mother’s warning and almost gets caught by the farmer when he steals into the garden into a hyped-up, wink-at-the-crowd mess of slapstick, meta-narrative, and story of love and redemption. By trying to be contemporary, it loses the very qualities that have made it beloved in generations of nurseries.

As in the original book, before the story begins Peter’s father was captured by Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) and eaten in a pie. Unlike the book, Peter’s mother is gone, too, and he is responsible for his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail and his cousin, Benjamin Bunny. Peter (voice of James Corden) is reckless and over-confident, leading Benjamin into the garden, which McGregor has covered with scary-looking steel traps. “There are other ways to get a meal,” he’s warned. “But not as fun!” Peter says, happy to risk not just his own life, but the others’ as well.

Peter deftly avoids the traps, but almost ends up in a pie himself, escaping by slipping out of his denim jacket, which McGregor uses on a (tiny) scarecrow. Aiding his rescue is McGregor’s neighbor, Bea (as in Beatrix Potter), a sweet-spirited artist who lives next door and is a friend to all of the local animals.

When Peter goes back to retrieve his jacket, McGregor catches him. It is almost too late for him to save himself when suddenly McGregor, like Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” has a sudden heart attack in the garden, collapses and dies. Though Peter takes credit for vanquishing his foe, the narrator (Margot Robbie) assures us that his death is attributable to “78 years of bad lifestyle choices,” with a merry little montage of McGregor inhaling asbestos and eating high-fat food. Really?

This, of course, is not in the book, is completely unnecessary to the storyline, and is likely to raise concerns in some of the young viewers, especially after Peter brags that he made it happen.

The property is inherited by another Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a persnickety control-freak of a great-nephew who barely knew he had a great-uncle with a farm and never met him. Thomas McGregor works for the famous Harrods department store, where he has a complete meltdown after being denied a promotion due to nepotism. If all of this seems superficial and unnecessary, that is because it is.

His arrival at the farm brings mayhem as he battles Peter and the rest of the local critters for the vegetable garden and the house, trying not to let his pretty neighbor know that he is not as much of an animal-lover as she is.

The movie opens with soaring birds singing an uplifting ballad — and then getting smushed, which becomes a repeated gag. So from the beginning, this film undercuts itself, winking at the audience and then trying to take it back. A joke about today’s parents’ oversensitivity to allergies is followed by “just kidding; don’t write letters!” “Don’t explain the joke,” Benjamin Bunny says. But that’s just what the movie does, constantly unsure of its focus and tone. Some sweet moments and lovely animation cannot make up for a film that is, to use a food metaphor, overstuffed and yet undernourished.

Parents should know that this movie includes some comic peril and violence, but a human character collapses and dies and there are references to the sad loss of Peter Rabbit’s parents, including his father’s being made into a pie, brief potty humor, some body shaming, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What did the characters learn about apologizing? Should farmers let animals eat their crops? What is your character flaw?

If you like this, try: “Babe,” “Paddington” and “Paddington 2,” and “Miss Potter,” with as Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Ewan McGregor as her publisher

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Paddington 2

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 5:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, no one hurt, reference to sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 12, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 22, 2018
Copyright Warner Brothers 2017

You know what we don’t see enough of in movies?  Whimsy.  Movies, especially movies for families, don’t trust the audience enough to step away from the dazzle and the pratfall.  As entertaining as that can be, it is a relief to see Paddington 2, a movie that trusts us enough to keep its tone gentle and, yes, whimsical.  And that makes it utterly beguiling.

There is a very brief refresher to introduce us to the backstory of the marmalade-loving Peruvian bear.  An Anglophile bear couple rescues a little cub and cancels their planned trip to London to raise him.  And then we catch up to Paddington.  His adoptive father has died and his adoptive mother, Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) has moved to an assisted living home in Peru.  Paddington, now living with the Brown family, is a cherished part of the neighborhood, always looking out for the members of the community.  Just one neighbor, cranky Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), a nosy self-appointed community watchman, keeps insisting that Paddington should not be there.

When the local antique shop receives a one-of-a-kind pop-up book showing London’s most iconic locations, Paddington realizes that it is the perfect gift for Aunt Lucy, who always dreamed of London but never been able to visit.  We go inside the book in an enchanting animated sequence, moving in and out of the beautifully crafted pop-ups.  Paddington takes jobs as a barber’s assistant and a window washer to earn the money to buy the book for his aunt, but things do not go very well and there are some mild slapstick catastrophes.

And then Paddington catches a thief stealing the pop-up book and in trying to catch him appears to be the culprit himself.  He is sentenced to prison, where things do not go well until his optimism and generosity — and recipe for marmalade, endear him to everyone, even the hot-tempered chef (Brendan Gleeson).  Paddington likes to quote Aunt Lucy, who said, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”

Hugh Grant has found his very best role as Phoenix Buchanan, a formerly successful actor with a plummy accent reduced to dog food commercials (wearing a dog suit), and a master of disguise who knows that the pop-up-book has a secret message leading to a cache of jewels.  It is impossible to imagine whether he or costume designer Lindy Hemming had more fun with the sheer preposterousness of Buchanan’s pretensions and wildness of his various get-ups, even when he is not in costume.  There’s a Da Vinci code-like treasure hunt as Buchanan tries to solve the puzzle before the Browns can track down the real thief and exonerate Paddington.  Oh, and Mr. Brown needs to resolve a bit of a mid-life crisis, Mrs. Brown wants to swim the Channel, the Brown children need to learn a couple of lessons, and there’s even a bit of a romance.  Plus, Aunt Lucy’s birthday is coming!

The movie follows its own advice, with kindness and courtesy in its story and story-telling, and the result is as irresistible as a marmalade sandwich proffered by a bear in a red hat.

NOTE: Stay for the credits and a delightful musical number

Parents should know that there is some mild gross-out humor and some peril and violence (no one badly hurt).

Family discussion: How can you follow Aunt Lucy’s advice to look for the good in people, and to be kind and polite?  Who do you know who follows those rules?

If you like this, try: the first “Paddington” movie and the books

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Copyright A24 2017

The Disaster Artist

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 5:13 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fictional depiction of suicide and violence, some scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017

Copyright A24 2017Let’s face it. Failure is more fascinating than success. There are innumerable movies based on true stories about real people who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles with determination, vision, and talent to accomplish extraordinary achievements in sports, the arts, and shaping public policy. Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “The Big Short” help us to understand huge, complicated tragic failures through the prism of small victories. But there are also movies like “Florence Foster Jenkins,” with Meryl Streep as the legendarily awful singer and “Ed Wood,” with Johnny Depp as the legendarily awful movie director, that explore with some affection the stories of terrible failures, and they do it with vastly more skill than the people they depict could have imagined.

In fact, that is part of what led to the failures in the first place — Florence Foster Jenkins and Ed Wood were exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the less competent people are, the more likely they are to be unable to evaluate their own competence. It isn’t the terrible end product that enthralls us as much as the buoyant optimism and imperishable self-regard that keeps these people going while the rest of us are consumed with doubt and insecurity.

The Room,” from writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau, has been called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies.” It is in that rare category of films that transcend “so bad it’s good” and “suitable for Mystery Science Theater commentary” into genuine hit, with well-attended midnight showings filled with fans who come to see it again and again. Like the midnight “Rocky Horror Show” screenings, fans come in costume and with props. An arty picture of a spoon in a frame that appears in many shots provokes a flurry of plastic spoons thrown at the screen. The crowd yells “focus” whenever someone should have reminded the cinematographer that the camera needed to produce a sharper image. And some people get happily tipsy taking a drink whenever any of the movie’s characters say “Hi.”

The film is based on a book co-written by Greg Sestero, who co-starred in “The Room.” For multi-degreed master of literary analysis James Franco, who directed and stars in the film, “Disaster Artist” is not an oxymoron. In his mind, Tommy Wiseau is an artist because he has a singular vision so urgent that he will realize it, no matter the cost, in the most literal terms. Wiseau is said to have spent six million dollars in making “The Room,” much of it as poorly decided as every other choice that went into making the film.

“The Room” tells the story (I use the term loosely, as the script is a mishmash of many unexplained developments and characters, with a plot even more out of focus than the camera) of Johnny (played by Wiseau, and Franco as Wiseau in this version), a successful banker who has a fiancee named Lisa (portrayed by Ari Graynor), a best friend named Mark (played by Dave Franco as Greg Sestero), and a teenage protegee of some kind named Danny (played by Josh Hutcherson). Lisa is bored with Johnny and begins an affair with Mark, though her mother pushes her to stay with Johnny because he is rich and treats her well. The film has extended soft-core-style sex scenes, a weird, inexplicable confrontation between Danny and a drug dealer, and another odd scene with guys in tuxedos tossing a football.

“The Disaster Artist” begins with Greg and Tommy meeting in acting class in Northern California, becoming friends in part because of their shared love for James Dean (coincidentally once played by Franco himself in a breakthrough performance) and dreams of being stars. They move to LA together, with Greg staying in Tommy’s apartment. Tommy is quite mysterious about his background (he has a strange eastern European accent), his age, and his source of income. He is supportive of Greg but also possessive. The decision to cast his own brother as Greg is Franco’s exploration of a mirrored duality in their relationship and there is more than a hint of some boundary issues that may reflect homoerotic feelings.

Frustrated by his lack of success in Hollywood and jealous that Greg is getting some work, Tommy decides to write and produce his own movie. And so we see how many bad decisions go into creating the “Citizen Kane” of terrible cinema. But we also see a very rare example of a film, usually the ultimate artistic reflection of teamwork, that is a genuinely singular vision. As muddled and incoherent as it is, it is exactly the movie he had in his head and exactly the movie he wanted to make. Franco clearly respects that, as Tim Burton did with “Ed Wood” (with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Orson Welles as his stand-in showing one director saluting another). The audiences in the midnight shows are there to jeer and feel superior. Franco, in his performance and direction, is sympathetic, giving Wiseau and his story the film he was not able to give himself.

NOTE: Be sure to stay through the credits for some uncanny side-by-side re-creations of scenes from “The Room” with the cast of this film.

Parents should know that this film includes nudity, sexual references and situations, depiction of suicide and violence, alcohol, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What does it mean that something is “so bad it’s good?” What does this movie tell us about the decisions that go into making a work of art?

If you like this, try: “The Room,” of course, and the book by Sestero, and the bonkers “Beaver Trilogy” documentary

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