Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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Needle in a Timestack

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and references to violence including an accidental death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
“Needle in a Timestack” has an intriguing twist on the time travel genre. Ever since the originals, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to “The Time Machine” and up to “Back to the Future,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “About Time,” and “Avengers: Endgame,” we almost always see time travel through the eyes of the travelers. The stories are about their goals, their discoveries, their impact. But in “Needle in a Timestack,” based on the story by Robert Silverberg, time travel is, unsurprisingly, extremely expensive, and thus available only to the very wealthy.

The main character is Nick (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and early in the film we see him at a meeting in his office, the boss and staff seated around a table in a conference room, and they are talking about ordinary business topics. But then something that looks like a virtual tsunami washes over the room. What is most surprising about it is that everyone acts as though it happens all the time. It turns out to be something like a temporal sonic boom, the backwash of some wealthy person’s time travel.

As we all know from concepts like “the butterfly effect” and many other time travel movies, the slightest difference a time traveler creates in the past can have enormous impact in the present day. Nick’s response to this evidence that someone has been tampering with time is to make sure that what he values most is still the same. And what he values most is his wife, Janine (Cynthia Erivo, and I cannot be the only person watching this film who wishes it was a musical, with both stars legendary Broadway singers). He calls her to make sure she is still the Janine he knows, the one who loves him and is committed to their life together.

There is a reason he is anxious about this. Nick and Janine were part of a group of friends in college, and Nick suspects that another member of the group, an extremely wealthy man named Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who was once married to Janine, may be using time travel to get her back, not by wooing her in the present but by preventing her from falling in love with Nick in the past. As science fiction writer David Brin says, time travel stories are all about “make it didn’t happen.”

Writer-director John Ridley gives the film a lived-in look. This is not one of those futuristic settings where everything is shiny and spotless and people wear clothes made of some fabric that has not been invented yet. Nick and Janine live in a world very much like the one we know and when we finally see how the time travel experience works, there are no fancy contraptions with spinning dials and Tesla coils. It is almost like a spa and its very ordinariness makes the story more intimate and compelling. The connection between Nick and Janine is powerful enough we think — and hope — it can survive any attempt to interfere with it. But it is clear that the tension caused by the risk of “didn’t happen” may have a destructive impact with or without Tommy’s involvement.

No one in science or fiction has figured out a way around the inevitable paradoxes of time travel, and this movie does not withstand too much attention to its internal logic. And some characters feel padded or distracting. But as a variation of Orpheus and Eurydice with some economic justice issues added in plus the electricity between the two stars (please put them in a musical together, please), its deep, unabashed romanticism makes it a worthy watch.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, an off-screen accidental death, and some mature themes.

Family discussion: If you could go back in time, what would you do? What would you change? What do you think someone else would change that could affect your life?

If you like this, try: “About Time” and “Reminiscence”

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The Tomorrow War

Posted on July 1, 2021 at 3:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for Some Suggestive References|Action|Language|Intense Sci-Fi Violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action peril and violence, many characters killed, fatal sacrifice
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 2, 2021

Copyright Amazon 2021
This is what summer movies are all about — “The Tomorrow War” is about endearing but flawed humans fighting aliens as they save all of humanity and resolve their family estrangements. Plus time travel. I’ll have a couple of concerns later on, but let’s do what the movie does and get right to the action.

Plunged right into the action is more like it, as the movie opens with humans firing at terrifying, insect-lizard-like aliens we will later learn are called White Spikes as they fall from the sky into the ocean.

That’s just a peek. As the hero we’ve just seen (Chris Pratt as Dan) plunges into the water, we are plunged back in time, as far away from the action as we can imagine. It is 28 years earlier in a quiet suburb. Dan is coming home, where his wife (Betty Gilpin as Emmy) and daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) are hosting a Christmas party. Dan is distracted because he has applied for a new job, one he would find more satisfying than the high school teaching position he took after leading missions with the military in Iraq. He settles down to watch a football game with Muri, but there is static on the screen and then an unbelievable sight. People disembark from what look like spaceships. They say they are from 30 years in the future, where humans are fighting a war with alien invaders and losing badly. Their only hope is to bring people from the past to help them fight.

A year later, systems have been set up to conscript people to join the fight. Only half of people are “qualified” for time travel, and they are sent for one-week tours of duty. Only 25 percent of those who are sent through time survive, and those that do are severely injured and traumatized. People are losing support for the war and for the world governments that are running things. “Why should we be fighting a way that as far as we’re concerned hasn’t happened yet?” But there is no choice. If you try to avoid service, your spouse or child is sent in your place.

Nevertheless, Emmy urges Dan to run. His only hope is to get help from the father he swore he would never speak to again (J.K. Simmmons as James). He meets with James but decides he would rather fight the aliens.

The actions scenes are exciting and the script by Zach Dean keeps things moving, even with the nearly 2 1/2 hour running time, nicely balancing character, combat, and some humor. As we’ve seen in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the “Jurassic World” movies, Pratt is a classic American hero, part cowboy, part smart aleck, loving father and husband despite some struggles to be the man he wants to be to them. There are some clever twists — also some not so clever twists, but time travel stories seldom avoid paradoxes. The disappointment here is a brief but jarring jab at the government, which makes no sense given the essential role the government plays in a crucial development, especially unwelcome in a 4th of July release. When compared to the ultimate in this category, “Independence Day,” where the President literally gets in a plane (after a stirring St. Crispin’s Day-style speech) to fight the aliens, it is impossible not think about what prompted it. Even in a summer action movie.

Parents should know that this is a PG-13 sci-fi action film, which means a lot of “action-style” violence. There’s lots of alien blood and body parts but though we hear a lot about human fatalities we do not see much beyond a lot of dead bodies and some skeletons. Characters use some strong language and drink some alcohol and there are mild sexual references.

If you like this, try: “Independence Day,” “Source Code,” “Pacific Rim,” and “Battle: Los Angeles”

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Thunder Force

Posted on April 9, 2021 at 12:10 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action/violence, and mild suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence, mostly comic but some mayhem and characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 9, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
Writer/director Ben Falcone likes to cast his wife, the endlessly talented Melissa McCarthy, as characters who are impulsive, not very bright, and not very good at reading the room, picking up social cues, or keeping thoughts unspoken. So, we know what we’re going to get from “Thunder Force,” with McCarthy as a forklift operator and Van Halen fan who unexpectedly becomes a superhero. I prefer their “Life of the Party,” with McCarthy in less of a slapstick role, but of course it is fun to watch. It takes too long to get going, with a not-very-interesting origin story, and three things are not as funny as they hope: references to 90s pop culture, questioning the sexual orientation of the heroines, and having the bad guys kill people.

There are two twists to the usual superhero backstory here. First, and most intriguingly, it is set in a world where the only people with superpowers are evil. Back in the 80s, a radioactive blah blah but it only affected those with a genetic predisposition to be receptive, and all of those people were sociopaths. So, ordinary humans are powerless against a bunch of selfish, conscienceless, supervillains who behave like the mean kids in middle school. Except instead of not letting you sit at their table in the cafeteria they throw electric fireballs that blow things up. They’re known as the Miscreants. (Great word!)

The Miscreants include Bobby Cannevale as a mayoral candidate who insists on being referred to as “The King” (not funny the first time or any of the subsequent times), running against an AOC-like rival named Rachel Gonzales (Melissa Ponzio), and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” star Pom Klementieff as Laser, who has the power of throwing electrified fireballs and the hobby of killing people.

Second, the superheroes here are middle-aged, plus sized ladies. Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) met in a Chicago school, when Emily, a brainy transfer student, was being bullied and Lydia stood up for her. They became friendship bracelet-sharing BFFs, and spent a lot of time together, including dinner with Emily’s grandmother, who took Emily in after her scientist parents were killed by the Miscreants. Emily is determined to carry on the work of her parents and find a way to defeat the supervillains.

Lydia and Emily become estranged in high school, when Emily says she has no time for anything but her work. Years later, as their reunion approaches, Lydia is a forklift operator in a Slayer t-shirt and Emily is the founder of a hugely successful company with a new headquarters in Chicago. Lydia goes to the the office to bring Emily to the reunion, is told not to touch anything, but is incapable of obeying that or pretty much any other cautionary direction. Suddenly she’s in a dentist chair-type thing with needles going into her cheeks. She has accidentally injected herself with the serum Emily has been working on for years to create superpowers for good guys. Her colleagues are Allie (Melissa Leo), and Emily’s super-smart daughter Tracy (a warm and winning performance by Taylor Mosby), a college graduate at age 15.

Lydia continues to get the injections, building up her strength, speed, and fighting skills. For some reason, this involves eating a lot of raw chicken. Meanwhile, Emily is undergoing a far less strenuous regimen, to give her the superpower of invisibility. Finally, they are ready to go on a trial run, stopping the robbery of a convenience store. At this point, Lydia and Emily prevent the thugs from stealing money but even these two powerhouses cannot prevent Jason Bateman from stealing the movie. I won’t spoil who or what his character is, but he is far and away the movie’s highlight. He and McCarthy spark off each other in a delicious manner, both with exquisite comic timing and unexpected and offbeat rhythms. Now that is a superpower.

Parents should know that while this is a comedy, there is some scary action with explosions, murders, and potential domestic terrorism. There are repeated references to the deaths of Emily’s parents. The movie also includes some strong language, alcohol, suggestive content and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What super powers would you like to have? Why did Lydia and Emily like each other? What did Emily learn about Lydia from Tracy?

If you like this, try: “Life of the Party” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”

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Godzilla vs. Kong

Posted on March 29, 2021 at 11:35 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense fantasy monster violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2021
Date Released to DVD: June 14, 2021
Copyright WB 2021

Ladies and gentlemen! In this corner, we have Godzilla, the atomic-era, skyscraper-sized reptile, destroyer of cities. And in the other corner, it’s King Kong, the skyscraper-sized mammoth gorilla. And no one needs to hear about anything else in this movie beyond the one question about Godzilla vs. Kong: Does King Kong throw a roundhouse punch that lands on Godzilla’s jaw like a guided missile? And the answer I am happy to say, is YES.

Also in the movie: a Titan gets sliced in two by a laser beam, another one rips a towering tree out of the ground and throws it like a javelin, a little girl communicates abstract concepts to a monster via telepathy and sign language, and some humans who say things like, “This is our only chance. We have to take it,” and “the gravitational inversion should be quite intense” and “That is the discovery of the millennium!”

As a refresher, “Titan” is the term for all of the gigantic monsters who have been living in massive underground locations that somehow have sunlight, air, and lots of lush vegetation and rivers. They have been “provoked” into coming into human world, as we’ve seen in the earlier Warner Brothers films, leading up to this Avengers/Justice League-style opportunity to see them all together.

In the earlier films, both Godzilla and Kong found humans who understood them. And they had “happy” endings, with Godzilla going back home after helping save the surface world for humans, and Kong at an isolated island-size sanctuary.

But happy endings don’t stay happy when there are audiences waiting for the next chapter. Godzilla returns and is not happy. Kong, it turns out, has been under observation in a “Truman Show”-style setting, except that unlike Truman he knew all about it, and has decided it’s time to do something different. He shatters the fake blue sky above the island. Scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is afraid to have him leave the island because the Titan world does not have room for two alphas; if he and Godzilla meet, there will be a battle, to which we say, duh, it’s the title of the movie and the reason we are sitting through the thin layer of exposition gives us a chance to catch our breath between special effects fights.

As happens more often than not, the real bad guy here is neither monster but the big, bad, corporation, headed by personification of greed and hubris Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir). What he cares about is power, in both senses of the word. AS has an idea he admits is crazy. “I love crazy ideas,” Simmons says. “They’ve made me rich.” AS says that if they can get Kong to lead them to the hollow tunnels where the Titans live, they can take him home and get access to the power source which I think will somehow restore the balance between humans and the Titans but to be honest, the details did not really matter to me or, I suspect to anyone else, including the people who wrote it.

Simmon’s daughter goes along to brag about the capacities of the flying machines her rich father paid for and to play the imperious spoiled girl/Veruca Salt role. You can all but hear her say, “I want it NOW!”

Meanwhile, Godzilla fan Millie Bobbie Brown and a friend join up with Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) a podcaster who is both paranoid and right in his suspicions about the Big Bad Corporation.

But, as I said, we’re here for the fight scenes, and there are some lulus, including a whole new monster I won’t spoil except to say it gives us the best of both worlds, “Captain America: Civil War” style, allowing for shifting loyalties and therefore different match-ups. Do we care that the “fringe physics” and veterinary science in the film are iffy at best? We do not. The only technology we care about is the CGI that makes that roundhouse punch land with a satisfying pow, and that is just right.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy/monster peril and violence with some gory and graphic images. Characters are injured and killed. There is brief strong language and a bathroom joke.

Family discussion: Why was it so difficult for the humans to agree on the best way to treat the Titans? Would you go along with Madison? Why did Simmons believe Lind? Why did Madison believe Bernie? What makes you decide to believe someone?

If you like this, try: “King Kong: Skull Island,” “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” and some of the more than two dozen earlier films, as well as the “Pacific Rim” films

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