Alita: Battle Angel

Posted on February 14, 2019 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, knives, guns, chases, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 15, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
The most surprising achievement of “Alita: Battle Angel,” a (mostly) live action version of a story that was originally a cyberpunk manga series of graphic novels and then an anime feature, is that somehow producer James Cameron and director Robert Rodriguez managed to make the main characters anime-style eyes a lot less weird than I expected.

The title character (Rosa Salazar Rosa Salazar) is a young female cyborg with Keane-style manga eyes, so the uncanny valley risk of her look being distracting and disorienting. But it turned out to be easy to adjust to it and almost immediately I was immersed in the dazzling world of the film and caught up in the action. Cameron (“Terminator,” “Avatar,” “Titanic”) and Rodriguez (“Sin City,” “Desperado,” “From Dusk til Dawn”) are both visual masters. The world they have created is immersive and wildly imaginative and the action scenes are staged are dynamic and compelling. There’s heart to it as well, with an appealing heroine who brings us along with her as she sorts through the moral quandaries of this brutal environment, showing herself more human than the humans.

It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which the reduced population of Earth lives on what is essentially a planet-sized junk pile. A small group of wealthy elites live on a city suspended above earth like a gigantic Macy’s Thanksgiving parade balloon, as in the Matt Damon film “Elysium.” Everyone else just scrounges, scrambles, or battles for whatever they can.

Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) does what he can to help, replacing damaged body parts with sophisticated mechanical prostheses, many of the parts found through scavenging. Searching through rubble one day he finds a mangled treasure, the head and part of the torso of a cyborg girl. He brings her home and gives her arms and legs that look like they are made of delicately carved antique ivory. Their relationship recalls Geppetto and Pinocchio. He is the fond father of an adopted child that is very much his own creation. And as we will learn, the reason he had those lovingly prostheses ready is that he created them for a child who died before he could help her. Alita may be his second chance.

But Alita is not a little girl. As her memory comes back slowly, she becomes the warrior she was designed to be. She remembers her fighting skills first. Then some of the other details of her past begin to come back. She remembers that she fights and how she fights and something of why she fights though she is not as clear on where she came from or what her place is in the world.

A man named Vector (Mahershala Ali) and his physician colleague Cherin (Jennifer Connelly) run a lethal high-speed roller derby that is a “Hunger Games”-style form of Darwinian survival of the fittest entertainment and commerce — and a cover for some less public but more deadly activities. The other major economic enterprise of this society seems to be bounty hunting (including characters played by Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley) and chop shops for mechanical prostheses. One person involved is Hugo (Keean Johnson), who has to re-think what he has been doing when he finds himself falling for someone he might not have considered human before he looked into those big, big eyes.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril, action, and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images, guns, chases, explosions, some strong language, and kisses.

Family discussion: What does Dr. Ido want for Alita? Why did Chiren respond so differently to the death of her daughter?

If you like this, try: The “Star Wars” movies, “Speed Racer,” and “Jupiter Ascending”

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Bumblebee

Posted on December 20, 2018 at 5:34 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action-style violence, weapons, explosions, mayhem, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 2, 2019

Copyright 2018 Paramount
You know how Transformers turn from cars into robots and robots into cars? Well, with this movie, an origin story for fan favorite Transformer Bumblebee, who “speaks” via audio clips from the radio. The ridiculously bombastic Transformer series just kept getting bigger, louder, and dumber. Roger Ebert famously called one of them a “horrible experience of unbearable length” and they got worse after that. This Bumblebee has transformed itself, kind of, into a more warm-hearted “ET” plus Herbie the Love Bug-style story with a retro soundtrack, directed by LAIKA’s Travis Knight. And it’s…better. Not great, but it won’t make your ears ring or your brain cells melt.

Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is an unhappy teenager living in San Francisco in 1987. She is still mourning for her dad, who died suddenly the year before, and counting the days until she can leave home. Everything seems an affront to her — the terrible uniform she has to wear working at the amusement park food stand, selling lemonade and hot dogs on a stick, her mother’s odious boyfriend who has moved into their home and thinks he can tell her what to do, and the monstrous unfairness of not having a car. So she spends much of her free time sulking and wearing an endless assortment of t-shirts from various edgy 80’s bands to show how righteously disaffected she is.

Meanwhile, after losing a battle to the evil Decepticons on their home planet, the good-guy Autobots led by Optimus Prime (still voiced by Peter Cullen, thank goodness) put their top soldier, Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) into an escape pod and tell him to set up a safe place on a remote planet called Earth. He arrives in the middle of a military wargame that leads to a chase, and is soon tracked down by two Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux), who permanently damage his voicebox and his memory cells. Later on, when Charlie wheedles a beat-up old yellow VW bug from a junk dealer, it turns out to be Bumblebee, and he and Charlie begin to form a friendship.

This takes us back to the first “Transformers” movie, oh, so many explosions and robot fights ago, when it was about the relationship between Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf) and his special space friend. Bumblebee’s inability to communicate, until Charlie figures out how to give him access to a radio and he figures out to use sound clips from it to “talk,” give a special poignancy to those first encounters. But that is undermined in part by subsequent scenes, which spend too much time on weak sub-plots about mean girls and the nerdy but lovable boy next door. It is nice that Charlie is very clear about setting boundaries with the boy, and he respects that. The movie could have skipped the scenes of Bumblebee inadvertently trashing Charlie’s house TP-ing the bully’s house and overturning her car, diversions that go nowhere and are not nearly as merry or endearing as they are intended to be as Knight seems more interested in the mechanics of the scene than what they add to the storyline.

All of this is of course just building up to lots more action as both the military and the Decepticons (best line in the movie is when Cena points out that the very name Decepticon should make us worry) come after Bumblebee. The Decepticons first appear to befriend the humans (and incidentally invent the Internet). So, lots of bombast and shooting and chases and explosions.

No matter what, I always enjoy seeing cars turn into robots and robots turn into cars, and I appreciated the lower-key, retro setting. If the series is not completely transformed, it does remind us why we liked the Transformers to begin with, and that’s a good start.

Parents should know that this film has a few bad words and extended sci-fi/action-style violence with characters injured and killed, weapons, explosions, and mayhem. Humans are vaporized. A positive element of the movie is Charlie’s clear boundaries with the boy who likes her.

Family discussion: Why does Charlie trust Bumblebee? Why does Agent Burns change his mind?

If you like this, try: “The Iron Giant”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted on July 3, 2018 at 4:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 15, 2018
Copyright 2018 Marvel

I like Ant-Man. He’s literally down to earth — after the intergalactic super-villain Thanos plotting the wiping out of half the universe, it’s nice to see our hero up against an ordinary, non-super thug of a bad guy. And it’s also nice to see, 20 movies in, a female superhero in the title of the film. I like the slightly retro, slightly bookish look of the Ant-Man films (outstanding work from production designer Shepherd Frankel). And I like the fun they have with scale. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can do more than shrink himself to the size of an ant and call on his ant friends to help him out. He can make himself and objects around him get bigger or smaller almost instantly. And the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) can do all of that AND fly and use her wrist blasters.

Scott has three more days to go under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet, with frequent check-ins by the local authorities, led by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who can’t seem to decide whether he wants to lock Scott up or become his BFF. He’s going a little stir-crazy, though he enjoys the elaborate games he creates for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The terms of his parole forbid him from having contact with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or his daughter Hope (Lilly), but that has not been a problem. They are not speaking to him after they think he betrayed them by making their technology public in “Captain America: Civil War.”

But something else that happened in “Civil War” is the reason they have to find him again. Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother, the brilliant scientist Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer), became too small and they thought she was lost forever in the “quantum entanglement.” Scott was able to return from the quantum entanglement, though, and they want to find out how and send him back there to see if Janet can be rescued. This is a job for two superheroes, and so it’s time for Hope to suit up.

An all-around crime boss named Sonny Burch (Walt Goggins) wants to stop them from getting the material they need to make that work. A character whose backstory I won’t spoil but who can vibrate through matter also wants it. And the cops are trying to capture the Pyms as well. So, lots of chases, lots of hand-offs and near misses. Director Peyton Reed and his writers (including Rudd) have a lot of fun with scale, sizing the vehicles up and down in an instant and Scott himself getting as big as the Statue of Liberty (which is exhausting for him) and as tiny as an atom. His suit does not always work correctly, though, and his judgment does not always work correctly, either.

The distinctive humor of the first film continues in this one, with Michael Pena returning as Scott’s loquacious fellow ex-con and business partner. His circuitous story-telling was funny in the first film, and it gets funnier here when he is questioned under the effects of what could be a truth serum (whether it is or not is a point of contention). Random topics that also come up for discussion include close-up magic, the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga, loading the dishwasher, and playing the drums. There are some great action sequences, especially one in a kitchen and the chase scenes, and crisp pacing to balance the more laid-back comedy. Its biggest failing is the dumb nicknames for the daughters of the characters. Really, Peanut? Jellybean? Those girls deserve something as witty and distinctive as the rest of the film.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for a brief update on the “Infinity War” cliffhanger, and then all the way to the end for an even briefer and very silly little second extra that has an important clue.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some scary images, mild language, and some parent-child issues.

Family discussion: What changes do you think the quantum experience has on people who travel there? How is Ant-Man different from the other Avengers?

If you like this, try: the first “Ant-Man” and the Avengers movies

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Posted on June 21, 2018 at 3:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense sci-fi/action peril and violence with many characters injured, eaten, gored, and killed, volcano,
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 22, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 17, 2018
Copyright 2018 Universal Pictures

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a mildly entertaining but utterly unnecessary fifth in the series inspired by doctor-turned blockbuster author Michael Crichton’s books.

It does recognize that if you’re going to keep making movies about reconstituted dinosaurs, it’s time to get them off that island. Yes, I remember they made it to San Diego in #2, but by now we feel we know every leaf and tree on the island that was once the theme park created by twinkly-eyed, mega-rich John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) with the help of scientist of questionable ethics Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), where so, so many things have gone wrong, as Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) way back in the OG “Jurassic Park” back in 1993. He predicted that the results would be unpredictable, and not in our favor: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Dr. Malcolm is back again as this film begins, and he’s still not on board with dinosaurs existing at the same time as humans. He’s testifying at a Congressional hearing because the island has a retconned volcano eruption and if the world does not save them, all of the dinos will be wiped out. “Let it happen,” says Dr. Malcolm. That’s nature, and it will prevent them from wiping us out. But of course there are those who consider the dinos, however created, an endangered species now, and are trying to raise money to save them. This includes former all-business, now all-love-for dinos Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard, thankfully out of the stilettos and able to run in flats), paleovetrenarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), and, of course, this movie’s house computer whiz and full-time scardy-cat, hacker Franklin Webb (Justice Smith of “Paper Towns”).

Just when it seems all is lost, Claire gets the dream offer from retconned former Hammond partner and ailing ultra-rich guy Benjamin Lockwood, who lives with his young granddaughter Maisie (excellent screamer Isabella Sermon). If she can persuade former love interest Owen (Chris Pratt) to help her extract samples of different species, Noah-style, he will put them in an isolated compound where they will never bother anyone or be bothered by anyone ever again.

Yeah, you know what Dr. Malcolm would say about that. He’d also say, “Never trust a rich guy, or, maybe, trust a rich guy but never trust his henchmen who want very, very, very much to be rich guys, especially after Dr. Wu shows up again, plus Buffalo Bill from ‘Silence of the Lambs.'” About that, though. Rafe Spall and Toby Jones use their best American accents for the evil want-to-be-rich roles but they are pretty bad at business. They accepted how much per dino?

So, basically, this is a movie of dinosaurs on the island running away from a volcano while humans run away from the dinosaurs (Remember — you don’t have to be faster than the dinosaurs. You just have to be faster than some other humans.), followed by humans running away from dinosaurs and evil humans at Lockwoods cool, creepy, Victorian mansion, followed by, oh yes, a big fat cliffhanger. Get ready for #6, “Jurassic World: Electric Blue-galoo.”

Here’s what’s good. Director J.A. Bayona knows how to tell a story with a camera, and the film is well-paced and stylishly told. The original had Spielbergian magic in the story-telling as well as the special effects, though. This one is several orders of magnitude down the evolutionary scale, so to speak, on both counts.

Parents should know that this film has constant sci-fi action and peril, scary animal attacks, volcano, characters injured and killed, including being gored and being eaten, murder, sad death, and guns.

Family discussion: Who was right about rescuing the dinosaurs? Do you agree that we keep creating technology we are not capable of controlling?

If you like this, try: the other Jurassic Park/World movies and the book by Mich

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How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Posted on May 31, 2018 at 4:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sci-fi peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 1, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 13, 2018
Copyright 2018 A24

Three suburban British schoolboys in the 1990’s are big fans of punk because it seems thrilling to challenge authority and pretty much everything.  But they are not very knowledgeable about anything outside of their own experience, and so when they accidentally wander into a strange party that happens to be a bunch of aliens, they just assume that they must be American girls. In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Americans, girls, and aliens — they’re all equally unknown, and so, for these boys anyway, easy to confuse.

Neil Gaiman’s sly short story has been lovingly adapted by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Rabbit Hole”), with a breakout performance by Tony-winner Alex Sharp as Enn (short for Henry), a sweet-natured kid who, like his two best friends, loves punk and really, really, really wants to learn how to talk to girls.  Somehow, though, at parties he’s the one who ends up in the kitchen talking to someone’s mum. One night, after a punk concert, they go in search of a party they heard about but end up knocking on the wrong door.  Inside, each room has a different gathering or ritual or happening going on, all exceptionally attractive people (though one has made a mistake in manifesting and has a weird forked finger).

We know what it will take Enn the whole movie to figure out.  These are not American girls. They are aliens, on some sort of galactic tour.  And one of them, named Zan (Elle Fanning, looking far too perfect to be a human) is an alien version of punk, open-minded, curious, and inclined to break the rules. She and Enn go out exploring the world together, and they explore each other a bit, too.

The fun of all fish out of water films is seeing our world, in this case our former world, through fresh eyes. We may laugh as Zan discovers what happens when a human body processes food or speaks whatever comes into her head without understanding social norms like privacy or embarrassment. But we also appreciate her wonder at the gritty, harsh British suburb and the very things that punk is rebelling against. Her encounter with a punk queen (Nicole Kidman with gusto and evident enjoyment) is surprisingly endearing. And when Zan’s alien leaders want to interfere, well, let’s just say that it can be a real advantage to have punks on your side. A magical musical number brings everything together in quite literal terms.

Sharp is the real deal. I was struck by his performance on Broadway and really happy to see him in this film. He is able to convey innocence that comes from being true-hearted, not from a slapstick kind of awkwardness. Fanning continues to be one of the most appealing young performers in films today, always thoughtful and heartfelt. Their Romeo and Juliet romance is sweet and touching, with the adventures of Enn’s friends providing some counterpoint. Punk in this film is not angry so much as revolutionary, fueled by ideas and optimism. That may seem like an alien idea today, but Mitchell makes it seem right on time.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, teen partying, drinking, drugs, nudity, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: What does punk mean to you? What is punk today? Why didn’t Zan want to follow the rules?

If you like this, try: “Stardust” and “Coraline,” also based on books by Neil Gaiman

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