Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Posted on May 9, 2024 at 11:37 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence/action
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense peril and violence, beating, sling-shots, taser-like spears, explosion, flood, marauders, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2024
Copyright 20th Century 2024K

Know going in that this is the kind of movie where the humans are mute, cognitively impaired, and yet the main human character wears tailored pants and a woven shirt that look like they came from the mall. This should not be a surprise as it is also the kind of movie there the title is, at best, paradoxical, as a planet is bigger than a kingdom and in any even the kingdom in this story is only a small part of the planet. So shouldn’t it be “Kingdom ON the Planet of the Apes?” Of all the suspension of disbelief required for the film, the idea that complex machinery would operate as intended after hundreds of years — well, that idea procured intended laughs in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” and unintended laughs in “Battlefield Earth.”

Know, too, that, for anyone who is trying to keep track of the “how does ‘Tokyo Drift’ fit into the chronology”-type questions about the original series of films, the television show, and the Tim Burton-and-after movies, this one takes place a long time after the death of legendary character Cesar, who sacrificed himself, and, possibly, before the Charlton Heston original. Maybe.

Noa (Owen Teague) is a young, male ape who lives in a gentle clan with his parents and two best friends. We first see them preparing for a coming-of-age ritual. Each of them must find an eagle’s egg (but always leaving one in the nest), and bring it back safely. The clan is centered around their trained eagles, and Noa’s stern father is their leader. Noa struggles to get his father’s approval. We see that they have some signs of what we think of as human civilization, in addition to the rituals. They have built some simple structures as homes, they ride horses, they obey the rules of the clan, and they have adornments and some tools and simple weapons, like slingshots. Also, as mentioned above, that most human of attributes, daddy issues.

A marauding group of apes arrive, with more powerful weapons, including spears with taser-like points. They destroy the compound, kill Noa’s father, and capture everyone else, except for Noa, who manages to escape, vowing to find his clan and get revenge. He meets up with Raca (the deep, kind voice of Peter Macon), a follower of the lessons of Cesar. And they meet up with a human woman they call Nova (Freya Allan) — cue the jokes about how humans are slow-witted and smell bad.

They try to drop Nova off with a group of humans (note: none wearing pants and a shirt), but the same marauding apes arrive to capture the humans like cowboys capture mustangs or, in “The Time Machine,” the Morlocks capture the Eloi. It turns out Nova has some secrets.

She and Noa are themselves captured by the apes, they find themselves in the kingdom of Proximus (Kevin Durand), a tyrant who, like the male humans of our time, is obsessed with Ancient Rome. They live on what was once a human stronghold, and Proximus is determined to break into the vault, to get access to whatever it was the humans were so intent on protecting.

I suspect we may hear some people claim that this film is intended as a metaphor to illuminate some of the most divisive topics of our era — colonialism, immigration, xenophobia, the way we tell our history. That gives this film too much credit, but the way both Raca and Proximus claim to be the true heirs of Cesar’s authority, with very different interpretations of his message, should resonate with viewers.

We are mostly there for the special effects and action scenes, though, and those are vivid and effective. The settings are stunning and the motion capture and CGI are next-level, giving the ape characters real weight and their expressions, well, expressive. As one of the most enduring series in history moves, potentially, toward the time of the very first film, the questions remain: whether humans and apes can find a way to co-exist, whether technology can advance without causing great harm and existential threats, and whether humans or apes can ever find a way to overcome fear and greed to work together for the common good.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there are some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use brief strong language (a human teaches it to the apes, of course).

Family discussion: Why did the clans have such different cultures?

If you like this, try: the other movies in the series and the original films with Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Charlton Heston

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Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Posted on March 21, 2024 at 12:07 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for supernatural action/violence, language and suggestive references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended supernatural peril and violence, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Copyright Sony 2024

The latest installment of the now four-decades-long saga of the intrepid, firehouse-based, three-generation funny, scary, and then funny again and then scary/funny crew who capture ghosts is much better than the wobbly reboot, with plenty to delight both long-time fans and newcomers. Those who love the original 1984 will be happy to see the more-than-cameos returns of original stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts. Walter Peck, the mean-spirited non-believer from the EPA in the first film, is now the mayor, played once again by William Atherton. And some of the ghosts from the original are back, too, including tiny little Stay-Puff guys. And yes, there will be slime.

And, yay, they’re back in New York City! The contrast between the gritty, cynical, material reality of the city and the supernatural images is an essential element of this franchise.

Gary (Rudd) is no longer an unhappy single science teacher; he is happily in a warm, loving, supportive relationship with Callie Spengler (Coon) the daughter of the character played by the late Harold Ramis in the first film, and they are full-time ghostbusters, back in that firehouse, still very cool with the firehouse pole and the tricked-out hearse vehicle. Rudd and Coon have an easy chemistry that adds a quiet counterbalance to the wilder elements of the story.

The kids are older. Trevor (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard) keeps reminding Gary and Callie that he is 18, but they are not ready to make him a full part of the group. And brainiac Phoebe (McKenna Grace) is still the one who is on top of all the science and engineering but still only 15. Mean mayor Peck threatens Gary and Callie with prosecution for violation of child labor and neglect laws if they allow her to participate in ghost-busting. Gary cares about Trevor and Phoebe but has not figured out how best to relate to them. He wants them to like him so much that he is not comfortable taking on more of a parental role.

The other two young characters just happen to have found their way from Oklahoma to New York City so they can stay in the story. Lucky (a charming Celeste O’Connor) is working at a ghost-investigating lab funded by now-billionaire Winston Zeddemore (Hudson). And Podcast (Logan Kim) is working for OG ghostbuster Ray (Aykroyd), who now runs a curio shop that’s a kind of “Antiques Roadshow” for artifacts containing spirits and demons.

One of those items is a sphere brought to the shop by a low-level slacker named Nadeem Razmaadi (a very funny Kumail Nanjiani) in a box of items from his late grandmother. Like the fast-deteriorating ghost containment and storage unit in the fire station, the sphere has kept inside a terrifying spirit who kills people with ice. You know where this is going.

There will be consultation with experts, including Murray returning as Peter Venkman and New York Public Library expert in ancient languages Hubert Wartzki (Patton Oswalt). There will be confrontations with ghosts we’ve met before and new ones, including a swamp dragon and a lonely teenage chess champion named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), who bonds with Phoebe when she is feeling abandoned by being told she has to wait three years before she can go back to work.

As the title suggests, and as the Robert Frost poem at the beginning of the movie underscores, this movie’s villain controls ice, which juts out from the ground like spiky frozen stalagmites. The ghosts and special effect and action are all entertaining, the humor keeps things bouncing along, the fan service is ample but not intrusive, and, well, ghost-bustin’ makes me feel good.

Parents should know that this movie has extended and sometimes disturbing supernatural peril, horror, and violence. There are some graphic images and jump scares. Characters use some strong language and there is some crude humor. A character makes a reference her family dying in a fire.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Gary to be firm with Trevor and Phoebe? What did Phoebe like about Melody? Do you think there are ghosts like the ones in the film? What do you think is the meaning of the famous Robert Frost poem at the beginning of the movie?

If you like this try: the other “Ghostbuster” films, especially the original and the 2016 version with female ghostbusters played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon, and a very, very funny Chris Hemsworth.

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The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Posted on November 16, 2023 at 5:45 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for largely bloodless child death and disturbing content
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic peril and violence including teens murdering teens. Characters are shot, impaled, poisoned, bitten by snakes, and hung.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2023

Copyright Sony 2023

The Hunger Games prequel is a villain origin story. The popular trilogy centered on rebel Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), in a dystopic world ruled by Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Author Suzanne Collins was flipping channels one night and saw both sports events and news footage of the Iraq War. This inspired her idea of a future society where entertainment — and the fundamentals of a totalitarian society — rest on a television show with teenagers competing to the death like gladiators. The grotesquery of the competition is reflected in a perverted concept of the selection process as patriotic and the young competitors paraded in glamorous attire before the “games” begin.

Collins has said she was drawn to “the idea of an unjust war developing into a just war because of greed, xenophobia and longstanding hatreds.” With this new installment, we get a better look at how that happens, on both a structural level and a personal one. Young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), whose name harks back to the title character in a Shakespearean tragedy about a general who is a hero in battle but becomes resentful that he is not honored enough by his community and then loses his own honor. As this story begins, he is a senior at the country’s prestigious school, barely scraping by with his grandmother (Fionnula Flannagan) and cousin who is like a sister (Hunter Schafer as Tigris). He does his best to keep up appearances as he hopes to win the school’s lucrative top prize for academic achievement. But there is an announcement — the prize has been canceled. The games, in the 10th year and much less elaborate than the ones we know from the original trilogy, are losing their audience. And so the candidates for the prize will each be assigned a games contestant to “mentor.” The contestant who does best — that means “spectacle, not survival.” The mentor who wins will be the one whose contestant gets the most support from the audience.

At this point, Coriolanus is devoted to his family and a loyal friend. He meets his assigned contestant, Lucy Gray (“West Side Story’s” Rachel Zegler) and quickly shifts from wanting her to be spectacle to wanting her to survive. Lucy is the songbird of the title, a roots-style singer with spirit and a strong sense of community.

The “games” are nowhere near as flamboyantly extravagant as the ones we have seen in the earlier films, and it is intriguing to see the foreshadowing and origins of the familiar elements. Jason Schwartzman as oily weatherman/magician/emcee Lucky Flickerman is not as outrageous as Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket, but we can see the origins of the gulf between the “entertainment” and lethal in the tone of the events. Coriolanus himself is responsible for coming up with some of the most significant elements of the later games. Viola Davis has a lot of fun as mad, gene-splicing, snake-loving scientist Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Ms. Collins is quite the name-giver!) and Peter Dinklage shows us the terrible compromises of the school’s Dean, (another bonkers name) Casca Highbottom.

Fans of the series and the book will appreciate this faithful version, but others may find the relentless butchery outweighs the lessons about morality, trust, and resilience, leaving open the question of whether lethal gladiator games, even by proxy, are inevitably seen as entertainment.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and graphic violence including many murders with teenagers attacking other teenagers and military attacking civilians. Characters are shot, impaled, poisoned, bitten by snakes, and hung. The MPA’s “largely bloodless” rating is an inadequate description of the images, many of which are graphic and disturbing.

Family questions: Were there any indications in the early scenes that Coriolanus might turn out the way he did? Was he trustworthy? Why did he record Sejanus? What made Lucy Gray change her mind?

If you like this, try: the other “Hunger Games” movies and the books

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The Creator

Posted on September 28, 2023 at 5:39 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, some bloody images and strong language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action, peril, and violence, some involving a child and a pregnant woman, disturbing and grisly images, very sad death of a major character
Diversity Issues: Some concerns about racial stereotypes
Date Released to Theaters: September 29, 2023

Copyright 20th Century 2023
“The Creator” is an apocalyptic sci-fi story about a war with AI that looks great but has a storyline that is an overlong (2 1/4 hour) mash-up of better, more thought-provoking films with more skillfully constructed world-building. I wonder how many reviews will suggest that if this is the kind of project we can expect from bot screenwriters, humans don’t have much to worry about.

Science fiction often extrapolates current conflicts by imagining the worst-case scenario of current technological developments or mirroring historical conflicts. “The Creator” does both, drawing from classics like “Terminator,” “Blade Runner,” “Her,” “Captain Marvel,” and “Apocalypse Now,” maybe a bit of “Dances with Wolves,” but just highlighting how much better those films are than this one.

The best moments are the film’s opening, with what appear to be archival black and white newsreels from the 1950s and 60s, chirpily introducing wonderful new thinking machines that will take over our most tedious tasks, make life easier, and free up our time for people and activities we love. They amusingly capture the upbeat tone and aesthetics of the post-WWII era.

But then we learn that (as in “Terminator”), the artificial intelligence humans created began thinking for itself, and what it thought was that it did not want to be the servants of humans anymore. And so, we are told, the AI dropped an atomic bomb on Los Angeles, wiping out the city. The AI robots are now so advanced that some, called simulants (think “Blade Runner’s” replicants) have faces and skin like humans, though no back of the head, and big, whirring, empty metal circles behind their ears. The humans and the AI are at war.

Humans have recently gained an edge when the story picks up in 2065. A military installation in the sky called NOMAD is powerful enough to track and destroy AI bases. Joshua (John David Washington), a former soldier with robotic arm and leg prosthetics, is living peacefully with his pregnant wife, Maya (Gemma Chan) in a house on an isolated beach. Around them is a community of friendly simulants.

They are discovered by NOMAD. Joshua, who turns out to have been undercover, trying to locate the mysterious person known as Nirmata, considered the creator and leader of the AI, tries to save Maya, but she appears to bekilled with the blown-up and shot simulents. Joshua is devastated. When military officers approach him to help them find a new weapon, reportedly the most powerful ever developed, he refuses, until Colonel Howell (Allison Janney) shows him evidence that Maya is still alive.

Joshua agrees to guide the mission to what was Maya’s community, and there he finds that the “weapon” is a highly advanced stimulant in the form of a little girl with a shaved head. She looks like she is about six years old. She can control power circuits and absorb information at an exponential rate. And so, like “The Last of Us,” a man and a young girl go on a journey. In this case, they are being chased by both the AI entities and the humans.

The action set-pieces are ably staged and the settings are striking. But the story is weak and superficial. Basically, the white people with cities and fancy weapons are the bad guys and the AIs, who mostly look Asian and live gently on the land, just want liberty and peace. A simulant says that it was human error that led to the bombing of LA. But one could just as easily say that it was human error that lead to artificial intelligence that violate Asimov’s laws of robotics, with no harm to humans an essential rule. Why do simulants eat and sleep? If they are so smart, why haven’t they learned from history that building the most powerful weapon has never led to peace? If they are so smart, why don’t they develop some proposal for peaceful co-existence?

More important, what does the movie want us to feel about all of this? Its politics are as muddled as the inconsistent world it invites us to consider.

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and violence, some involving a child (or an entity that looks like a child) and a pregnant woman. Many characters are injured and killed, including sad deaths of major characters, and there are onscreen deaths and some graphic, bloody images. Characters use strong language. There are unfortunate racial stereotypes, even with non-human AI.

Family discussion: Why make an AI in the form of a child? What kinds of rules should we impose on the corporations who develop and sell AI?

If you like this, try: “Blade Runner,” “The Tomorrow War,” and “Terminator”

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Landscape with Invisible Hand

Posted on August 17, 2023 at 11:30 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and brief violent content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Suicide by gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2023

Wherever you think this is going, I can guarantee you will be surprised. Based on the book by National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” is a story about the aftermath of an alien invasion of Earth, but not like one we’ve seen before. This is not about evil invaders like “War of the Worlds,” “The Tomorrow War,” “Independence Day,” or benign, wise aliens like “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “E.T.” These aliens, called vuvv, do not look like giant insects, robots, or humans. They look like a cross between a big slab of pink tofu and a rectangular sofa cushion, with two big front teeth. One character calls them “squishy coffee tables.” They communicate by scraping their flippers together and the rasping sounds are translated by little bluetooth speaker-like boxes.

Copyright MGM 2023

The movie takes place a few years after they have colonized the Earth and siphoned off its wealth and resources. We are brought up to date over the opening credits, with a theramin-influenced score that is a throwback to 50’s sci-fi. We see a series of drawings, labeled as though they are in a museum, with titles, dates, and identification of media. The first is a very young child’s portrait of his family, and then we see his skill grow over the years. There is a drawing of a family Christmas. There is a drawing of a bustling market. And then there is a drawing of the market after the arrival of the aliens. It is empty of food and customers.

The artist is Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), a high school student who lives with his mother, Beth (Tiffany Haddish) and sister Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie). Like most adults who have not sold out to the vuvv, Beth is unemployed, but they still have their home, which makes them much better off than most people. Adam impulsively offers their basement to Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers of “Yellowstone”), a new classmate who has been living in the family car with her anxious father (Josh Hamilton) and surly brother Hunter (Michael Gandolfini). Chloe and Adam like each other, and that creates an opportunity.

The vuvv are curious about human culture, especially romance. They pay to watch it. So Chloe and Adam attach sensors to their foreheads and start racking up views and money. That does not go well, And then things really take a turn.

That turn is strange and it gets stranger, in smart and interesting and thought-provoking ways I will not spoil. It is refreshing especially in what is usually the slowest time of year for movies to see one that is willing to challenge the audience. That applies to the small details, from the design of the vcvvs and their settings to the mixture of humiliation and resentment in the male Marshes, the way some humans adjust their appearances to more closely resemble the vuvv, the difference between two characters, each seen only in a single brief scene calibrate their priorities about their interactions with the aliens. And its message about art and its significance to those who create it and those who observe it, comes through with great clarity.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and a suicide by gun. It is offscreen but we see the blood splatter. There are some sexual references and brief underage drinking.

Family discussion: What parallels are there between the vuvv and historical colonizers? What does this movie say about the importance of art?

If you like this, try: The book by M.T. Anderson and the film “Upside Down”

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