Avatar: The Way of Water

Posted on December 14, 2022 at 5:46 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense, sometimes graphic peril and violence, characters injured, sad death of a family member
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 16, 2022

Copyright 2022 20th Century
Although writer/director James Cameron has made some of the most innovative and financially successful movies of all time, including “Terminator,” “Titanic,” and the original “Avatar.” But he has said that his real passion is oceans and joked that his movie career is to fund his explorations of the world under water. He brought those two passions together with his “Deepsea Challenge 3D” documentary about his expedition to the deepest part of the ocean. And in this sequel to 2009’s “Avatar” he brings them together again, with much of the story taking place under the clear, sparkling water of Pandora.

Time has passed since the end of the first film. Onetime human soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is living blissfully with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), among the “forest people,” in an Edenic environment of gentle peace with their community and with the land. They have four children, two older boys, a little girl, and an adopted daughter, Kiri, daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine. voiced by Sigourney Weaver, who played Dr. Grace Augustine in the first film. Kiri is the late Dr. Augustine’s daughter. No one knows who her father was. A human boy nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion) is almost another family member, though he must wear a mask on Pandora in order to breathe. Spider’s father was Miles Quaritch, the first film’s human villain, played by Stephen Lang.

Miles is back, now as an avatar, too. The human “sky people” are no longer seeking just Pandora’s precious ore. They now represent the most popular category of movie bad guy in 2022: colonists. He is charged by his commanding officer (Edie Falco) to conquer the natives, and he vows to kill his former fellow soldier, Jake Sully.

As with the first film, the Pandora natives are portrayed as idyllic indigenous people and the humans, with the exception of the kindly lab staff, are mostly brutish and greedy. Their invaders have machine guns and explosives and no compunctions about using children as bait. The Pandorans have spears and arrows. And pure hearts. Cameron is not known for subtlety or depth of character. There’s a reason his most famous character is a cyborg whose breakthrough film had him utter just 17 lines of dialogue. This movie would have been better with less talking, too.

But Cameron is known for spectacular visuals, and “Avatar: The Way of Water” delivers that and then some. When the Sullys leave their home with the forest people and seek asylum with the teal-skinned water people (reminiscent of the recent “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”), much of the story moves on and in the ocean and Cameron’s endless love for that environment is evident in every breathtakingly gorgeous detail, thrillingly immersive in IMAX 3D with Dolby sound. The undersea creatures are spectacularly beautiful and the underwater movements are graceful and balletic or intensely suspenseful as the story demands. Kiri, who loves her family but has always felt something of an outsider, finds her home in the water so believably we begin to feel that way, too. The building blocks of the storyline may be very basic, but the environments where they take place are glorious.

By the end of the movie, the Pandorans no longer seem like giant super-models, with their elongated, slender bodies. They seem like the normal ones and the humans seem tiny and awkward.

The story is just a scaffolding for the world-building. That may make it more of an experience than a movie, but the experience is a fun place to visit.

Parents should know that this film has extended and intense peril and violence. A young character is killed. There are graphic images including a severed arm, dead bodies, and impaled combatants. Characters use some strong language and the costumes are skimpy. There are mild sexual references including questions of paternity.

Family discussion: What circumstances today present the same issues that the Sullys and the water-based Metkayina clan have to consider — protecting their group or caring for those in need, wanting to be peaceful when faced with violence? Does your family have a motto? How are the two Sully brothers different and why?

If you like this, try: “Avatar,” and get ready for three more sequels!

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Meet Cute

Posted on September 21, 2022 at 7:59 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bar, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Comic violence, attempted suicide and suicidal ideation
Diversity Issues: BIPOC characters used solely as guides for white characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 21, 2022

Copyright 2022 Peacock
As anyone who has seen “The Holiday” knows, movies love the “meet cute.” In “The Holiday,” Eli Wallach plays a screenwriter from the 1940s who tells Kate Winslet that a “meet cute” is where there is something awwww-some about the way the couple we’ll be rooting for first see each other. The example he gives is a man and woman meeting at a store when he is trying to buy just the bottom half of a pair of pajamas and she is trying to buy just the top half. That’s a real movie, by the way. It has a cute title, too: “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.”

The term takes on extra dimension in this new rom-com, a time-traveling dimension. We may think that Sheila (Kaley Cuoco) and Gary (Pete Davidson) are meeting for the first time at a sports bar and that it is a charming coincidence or maybe a hint that they were meant to be together when they order the same cocktail, an old fashioned. But there are hints about what Shiela will reveal. It is the first time for Gary, but not for Sheila. She has been using a time machine in the back of a nail salon that looks like tanning bed to repeat the same night for months so she can make it perfect.

She has also been going back in time to tweak some of Gary’s earlier experiences to make him a little more perfect, too. Both Gary and Sheila had painful childhoods. She thinks if she can eliminate some of the trauma he experienced, he will be happier and..better. Apparently no one ever explained the Butterfly Effect to her. You can’t just tweak experiences and expect people to be the same. Pain is part of what makes us who we are.

This is a high-concept movie that delivers a satisfying level of insight beyond the will they/won’t they of the romance. It is likely that anyone who has ever been in a close relationship, romantic, familial, or friendship, has wondered if the other party might not be easier or wished to be able to fix something that hurt a loved one long ago.

Cuoco has already shown herself to be an actress of range far beyond her excellent work in sit-coms. Davidson was a less likely choice as he pretty much always plays himself, quite literally in his only previous lead role. They are both quite good here, as Cuoco becomes more and more honest about what is going on and about her own struggles and Davidson shows us how small changes in his past would have produced a more confident, less empathetic version.

There are some odd choices here, including Sheila’s murderous disposal of her alternate timeline versions and the only two characters of color being relegated to wise counselor roles to prop up the white couple. But the parts that work have great charm and Cuoco and Davidson are a pleasure to root for.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, sexual references, a light-hearted portrayal of murder and attempted murder, a less lighthearted portrayal of suicide attempt and suicidal ideation, and alcohol and drugs.

Family discussion: If you could travel through time, what would you change? Is it okay for things to be messy?

If you like this, try: “Groundhog Day,” “Palm Springs,” “About Time,” “Happy Accidents,” and “Map of a Thousand Perfect Things”

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NOPE

Posted on July 20, 2022 at 3:58 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, vaping
Violence/ Scariness: Extended science fiction peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very graphic and bloody images, jump scares
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 22, 2022

Copyright Universal 2022
Yep. This is one scary movie. Jordan Peele’s new film, “NOPE” does not have the depth of cultural commentary of his Oscar-winning script for “Get Out” or his follow-up, “Us,” but it is a smart, scary movie with a strong storyline, great performances, and clever details. Plus, it’s shot on IMAX and Peele, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Tenet,” “Ad Astra”), and production designer Ruth De Jong (“Twin Peaks”) know how to fill the screen and use every bit of it to tell the story.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” and “Judas & The Black Messiah”) is a horse trainer, like his father, grand-father, and several greats. According to his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer of “Hustlers,” “Lightyear,” and “Akeelah and the Bee”), their family goes back to the very first moments of moving pictures in 1878, the two-second series of cards showing a man riding a horse. The family business is training horses for movies and television.

After a brief, terrifying preface on the set of a 90s sitcom, we see OJ and his father Otis (Keith David) working on the ranch, talking about the importance of making sure an upcoming job goes well and annoyed that Emerald has not shown up. Then something strange happens. There are disturbing sounds, like the zings and thwacks of arrows. The sound design by Johnnie Burn is creepy, evocative, and never less than outstanding. A key on a ring pierces a horse’s rump. Shrapnel hits and kills Otis.

The ranch is isolated, but nearby is a small cowboy theme park owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen of “Minari”) and his wife, Amber (Wrenn Schmidt of “For All Mankind”). Pressed for money, OJ has been selling horses to Jupe, hoping to be able to buy them back some day. But Jupe wants to buy the entire ranch.

Meanwhile, both are beginning to be aware that the strange electrical disturbances and glimpses of something in the sky may be from another world. More important, Ricky, OJ, and Emerald see this as a potential for profit. Jupe wants to make the extraterrestrials an attraction at the park. If OJ and Emerald can get good, clear photos of aliens, they can get on Oprah!

Yeah, they’re going to need a lot more than a bag of Reese’s Pieces if they’re looking to find a cute little ET for Oprah.

That scary preface I mentioned comes back. Something went horribly wrong at a live taping of a silly sitcom starring a little Asian kid and a chimp. That child grew up to be Jupe. While he speaks smoothly about the “SNL” sketch based on the incident (Chris Kattan as the chimp!) and is happy to point out artifacts from his past, a theme about the relationship between animals and the humans who think they can tame them appears as unsettlingly as the odd sounds we hear. We see it again as the horse named Lucky misbehaves at that crucial job OJ’s father was concerned about. Or rather, the humans misbehave, giving an inadequate safety briefing. OJ mumbles until Emerald arrives and her presentation is more about her than it is about the horse. It is not a coincidence that both of these problems occur in the highly artificial performative environment of a show, the most heightened version of human life with the strange sounds and hot, bright lights and a deep gulf between reality and fantasy. There’s nice brief moment when someone reacts to OJ’s name as though he’s connected to OJ Simpson (it stands for Otis Jr.).

This ties in with the idea that the first reaction OJ, Emerald, and Jupe have to the idea of aliens is to make a show of them. How we present ourselves and how we are perceived is core to this story, going back to Emerald’s diversion in what is supposed to be a safety briefing to a description of her ancestor, the jockey in the prototype for moving images, where the horse’s name was identified but not the name of the human riding him. At June’s little theme park, Emerald inadvertently photobombs a group of visitors. And later, two more characters are added to the effort to document the aliens, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) a blond-tipped sales and installation specialist from a big box store who sells surveillance cameras to the Haywoods and wants to find out what they want to surveil, and the fabulously named Antlers Holst, fabulously played by Michael Wincott, a cinematographer artiste who like to “make one for them, one for me” and considers capturing images without electricity a creative challenge.

There are a lot of ideas here, including some sly digs at Peele’s own industry that could fit in a Key and Peele sketch plus a dazzling series of visual images. The air dancers the Haywoods bring to the ranch, the wonderfully imagined, just tacky enough details of the theme park, the connection between Jupe’s cowboy hat blown away by the ship and the ship itself are all brilliantly designed. Every performance is superb. Schmidt and Yeun make us wish for an entire other story about their relationship. Kaluuya continues to be one of the most fascinating actors working today, bringing a rare sense of thoughtful gravity and stillness to the screen. Keke Palmer, always great, gives her best performance yet as we see Emerald become more grounded, more fierce, more aware of her connection to the brother who stayed when she left.

There are too many ideas, too many things to see to come together with the impact “Get Out” and “Us” had. But it is wonderfully entertaining and provocative enough to spark what I’m sure will be some fascinating online speculation, and to add to Peele’s reputation as one of the most significant filmmakers of his generation.

Parents should know that this film includes tense and scary sci-fi peril and violence with some graphic images. Characters are injured and killed. At one point in my notes I just wrote: “BLOOD!” There are jump scares and fake-outs. Characters use very strong language.

Family discussion: How does the relationship between OJ and Emerald change? Why are the sections of the movie named after the horses?

If you like this, try: “Get Out,” “Us,” “Coherence,” and the various versions — except the most recent — of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

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Jurassic World: Dominion

Posted on June 8, 2022 at 12:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense sci-fi peril, scary monsters, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 10, 2022

Copyright Universal 2022
The most important lesson from “Jurassic World: Dominion” is that as terrifying and deadly as dinosaurs can be, there are some forces even more scary. One is that movie standard villain, the corporate CEO who will stop at nothing to dominate the world. The other is a very, very angry 12 year old girl.

But yes, this movie has terrifying and deadly dinosaurs, ones that run, ones that fly, ones that swim, and they are innumerable. And this action-packed entry in the series is character-packed as well. In addition to our friends from the previous “Jurassic World” movies, Owen (Chris Pratt), Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), Barry (Omar Sy), and Maisie (Isabella Sermon), and our favorites from the first three films, Ellie (Laura Dern), Alan (Sam Neill), and Ian (Jeff Goldbloom), we have terrific new characters, including biotech CEO Lewis Dodgson (hmm, name a reference to Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson?) played by Campbell Scott, his top employee at Biosyn is Ramsey Cole (the terrific Mamoudou Athie), and, my instant favorite character, LaWanda Wise as Han Solo, I mean as Kayla Watts, the brave, independent, not unwilling to break the law but with an essence of integrity pilot.

And the characters really need a pilot in this story, which jumps from one location to another more than a James Bond movie. Wherever they go, however, there are dinosaurs.

The movie sets up several different storylines before bringing them together at the headquarters of Dodgson’s Biosyn corporation, located, like all good supervillain lairs, on a deserted island. As it begins, dinosaurs are all over the world, making a nest on a skyscraper, grazing in the prairie, killing other animals, each other, and some people. Humans are reacting as we have too often seen them do, arguing about policy and setting up black markets and dino versions of cattle rustling and cockfights.

Owen and Claire are off the grid, living in a remote cabin with Maisie, whose parthenogenic origin and survival following an innovative gene therapy is of great interest to scientists and to those who want to exploit her genes (she is referred to at one point as the world’s most valuable intellectual property). There is a thrilling scene in this part of the film as Owen, on horseback, chases dinosaurs through a snowy Western plains area, swinging a huge lasso like a John Ford cowboy. Maisie is getting impatient and angry, and has started to break the rules about staying out of sight. A plague of locusts with some dinosaur genes are destroying crops, “the food we eat and the food our food eats.” Ellie asks Alan, who she has not seen for years, to help her investigate a possible tie to Biosyn. She has been invited there by mathematician and chaos-ologist Ian, a consultant at Biosyn.

Maisie is kidnapped, along with a baby dinosaur born without a male parent, the child of Owen’s old friend Blue, and brought to Biosyn.

All of this is just an excuse for one thrill-ride action scene after another, all superbly staged with brilliant sound design and editing. Many of them have fake-outs just long enough for you to catch your breath, thinking they’ve made it, when it turns out they haven’t and it all starts up again. This is the essence of a summer movie. Is Maisie’s British accent genetically transmitted? She has exclusively heard only Americans since she was a toddler. And didn’t Owen’s hand trick only work after long-term, painstaking clicker-training? But now it suddenly works on dinos who have never seen him before? Oh, go watch Pitch Meeting if you care about that stuff. Just pass the popcorn and enjoy the chases.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop very intense peril and action with some graphic images and some strong language.

Family discussion: What was the most important thing Maisie learned about her mother?

If you like this, try: the other Jurassic Park and Jurassic World movies

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Everything Everywhere All at Once

Posted on March 31, 2022 at 10:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, sexual material and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Vaping marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-style action and peril, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 1, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 4, 2022

Copyright A24 2022
They aren’t kidding about the “Everything” in the title. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a wildly imaginative and just plain wild splintered story of metaverses, googly eyes, a weaponized fanny pack, dirty laundry, a big bagel, telepathic rocks, divorce papers, Benihana, a “Ratatouille” remix, the IRS, a dress with doll heads on the sleeves, and, as promised, it is all at once.

Michelle Yeoh finally has a role fully worthy of her as Evelyn, who in this universe is anxious, disappointed, and exhausted. She and her nebbish of a husband, Waymond (former child star Ke Huy Quan of “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”) live above their business, a run-down laundromat. Her father, Gong (James Hong of “Blade Runner”), is visiting and she is planning a party. She worries about pleasing him. She thinks her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is directionless. She introduces Joy’s girlfriend to Gong as her friend because she does not want him to know Joy is gay. The laundromat is being audited by a grim IRS bureaucrat named Diedre (an un-glammed Jamie Leigh Curtis, having a blast).

In the midst of Diedre’s questions about their receipts, a Waymond from another universe arrives to tell Evelyn that all of the multiverses are under attack by a villain named Jobu Tupaki and only she, of the thousands of Evelyns throughout the multiverses, can save the day. To do that, she will need to access the memories and skills of her Evelyn counterparts.

This leads to a dazzlingly kaleidoscopic adventure that is genuinely thrilling and often hilarious, sensational martial arts fights in an always-astounding array of settings, with a roller coaster of surprising twists and turns that hold up on repeated viewings. One very funny running joke is the increasingly bizarre and often gross triggers for switching to another universe. The production design is sensational, as observant and witty in the ordinary locations (it is the IRS office of nightmares) and the fantasies. Same with the costumes, especially those worn by Jobu Tupaki. All of it comes with cheeky brio and a surprising amount of heart. Ke Huy Quan is a marvel, both in the action scenes and in his seamless shifts between the different Raymonds. He is always present, committed, and completely clear about which version he is. Yeoh shows us all the Evelyns, separate and integrated, and it is a joy to see her go from drab and bedraggled to knowing and open-hearted. She begins the day saying she cannot hold one more thought in her head. She ends with the thoughts of countless Evelyns. I don’t want to give anything away about Jobu Tupaki, except to say the performance has great wit and charm.

The movie opens by taking us literally through the looking glass into a world of layers, miscommunication, and doubling even before we get to the prismatic multiverse. It ends with a sense of wholeness that makes us feel a little closer to, well, everything.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and constant peril and action-style violence with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: What would your multiverse personas be? What unpredictable action would you take to access them? What rejections and disappointments have led you to this moment?

If you like this, try: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and other Michelle Yeoh movies

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