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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Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Posted on March 28, 2024 at 12:46 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for creature violence and action
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended monster-style peril and violence, some disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Some insensitive stereotyping

Remember, they’re not monsters; they’re titans. Earth has become accustomed to living with gigantic beasts, and even allows Godzilla to sleep in Rome’s Coliseum, curled up like a puppy on a dog bed, after a hard day’s work protecting the Eternal City from bad titans. Godzilla’s nemesis from the last movie, King Kong, is safely unreachable in Hollow Earth, a pristine world of exotic creatures, with a few human scientists to study and monitor, led by double PhD Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall). The human encampment is so large and complex there is even a school for the children of the people working there. Andrews has adopted the mute girl with the telepathic connection to the giant ape, Jia (Kaylee Hottle).

Something is wrong. Jia is having disturbing visions, creating drawings that track the anomalies showing up in the scientists’ instruments. Andrews asks conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) to come to Hollow Earth to help. Trapper (Dan Stevens), Andrews’ classmate and former love interest, now a freewheeling veterinarian dentist to the Titans, arrives in Hollow Earth to replace Kong’s infected tooth. We know Trapper is a free spirit because (1) his name is Trapper, (2) he replaces the tooth while hanging from a helicopter AND ENJOYING IT (one of the highlights of the film), and (3) he wears a Hawaiian shirt over a hipster t-shirt and leather cord necklaces.

That is about all you need to know about the humans in the story, except that Jia has one other connection with Kong. They are both believed to be the last of their kind. That will turn out not to be the case.

There are a lot of titans in “Godzilla x Kong.” It’s like the “Avengers: Endgame” of gigantic beasts and I admit I got lost in trying to remember who was on which side. I suspect the titans did, too. And there are so many of them and they all have different powers, you need a spreadsheet. It’s getting to be kind of like Pokemon, if Pickachu was the size of a skyscraper and could breath atomic radiation.

Let’s face it. The humans are here for (1) scale, so that when Kong holds out his hand to Jia, her hand goes only partway around his fingertip, (2) exposition, to say things like, “Something down there is calling for help,” and “You’re going to think I’m completely insane,” and use words like “anomaly” and “intensity increased,” (3) looking worried or afraid (poor Jia is stuck with one anxious eyebrow expression through the whole movie, and (4) running from various dangers. Or, not be able to escape. Just like you never want to be the character in a horror movie saying, “I’ll be right back,” you do not want to be the one in the monster movie saying, “I’m the one in charge, so everyone has to do what I say.” Oh, another purpose for the humans — (5) being the chosen one from the ancient prophesy.

The monsters/titans are here to fight, and let’s face it, we’re here to see them fight. Creature designer Jared Krichevsky and the talented crew of designers and CGI experts have created titans that are true to the spirit of the classics but take advantage of the capabilities of current technology. I’m a fan of Kong’s roundhouse punches, especially with his augmented mechanical arm. And there is a titan that breathes ice, a sea serpent, and one I won’t spoil except to say it’s in the classic Kaija top ten. I admit I got a bit confused by the overwhelming number of creatures in the various locations (Rio seems to be there just for reason (6): to wear bikinis), and did not always remember who was on who’s side, but the fight scenes are as much fun as the fans could hope for.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive and sometimes graphic creature violence, injuries and deaths of a human and many monster characters, and brief strong language. Audience members may be concerned over racial stereotypes, with the one Black main character relegated to comic relief for being terrified and the stereotypical portrayal of the indigenous people.

Family discussion: Why does Dr. Andrews trust Bernie Hayes? What does Jia learn from meeting other members of her culture? Why are there apparently no female giant apes?

If you like this, try: “Godzilla Minus One,” the original 1954 “Godzilla,” and the 2005 “King Kong”

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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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Kung Fu Panda 4

Posted on March 7, 2024 at 6:33 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images and some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style peril and martial arts fight scenes
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2024
Date Released to DVD: April 25, 2024

Skidoosh! Jack Black returns as Po in the fourth chapter of the saga about the big-hearted panda who has become a kung fu master with the title of Dragon Warrior, and earned the gratitude of his community and the respect of his colleagues, the Furious Five. If you don’t know who they are, don’t worry; they are briefly seen and not heard (very expensive voice talent) in this film.

But there’s plenty of top-level voice talent anyway, with Dustin Hoffman returning as the red panda Master Shifu, Viola Davis as The Chameleon, Black’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” co-star Awkwafina as a fox named Zhen. Also returning are Po’s two dads, his adoptive father, the excitable Mr. Ping (James Hong) and the cuddly and fearful Li (Bryan Cranston), now close friends.

A brief prologue shows the return of the first villain Po defeated, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), apparently escaped from the spirit world determined “to take what is mine, which is everything that is yours.”

Po is happy as the movie begins. He is respected and beloved in his community and welcomes customers to Mr. Ping’s expanded restaurant. He signs autographs and poses for pictures (created with a paintbrush). He has accepted the staff of wisdom from Master Shifu without really thinking about what it means — that it is time for him to ascend to the next level, “passing on wisdom and inspiring hope,” and select a successor Dragon Warrior. Po is proud of achieving that title and reluctant to let it go. When he meditates on a new Dragon Warrior, his mind quickly moves from “inner peace” to “dinner, please.”

Tai Lung has not returned. That was an even more dangerous villain, The Chameleon, a shapeshifter with powerful magic. Po meets Zhen, a thief and a liar who grew up on the streets of Juniper City. She promises to bring him to The Chameleon. But can she be trusted?

This fourth chapter meets or exceeds the vibrance and heart of the first three films. The animation is superb, with outstandingly imagined settings, camera angles, styles, and action scenes. The gentle exploration of the conflicting feelings about growing up is sensitive and insightful. Awkwafina is, as always, funny and endearing in her portrayal of a character who is seeing what it means to be trustworthy and kind for the first time. The Chameleon, marvelously designed, with voice by Davis, is an excellent villain, imperious, steely, and ruthless. And there are a number of funny supporting characters, including Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan as the leader of the underground lair of thieves, and a trio of deceptively cute but secretly bloodthirsty little creatures. The balance between action and humor is just right, with a very funny bulls in a china shop moment and a precariously balanced tavern. And Po is, as always, an appealing hero, always on the side of helping others but still with more to learn.

Parents should know that this film includes extended action- and cartoon-style scenes of martial arts peril and violence, some schoolyard language (“screwed up,” etc.), and references to orphanhood and neglect. Some families may be sensitive to the portrayal of an adopted character who is equally devoted to his biological and adoptive father.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: the other “Kung Fu Panda” movies and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” with Black and Awkwafina

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Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom

Posted on December 21, 2023 at 2:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and sci-fi violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Beer
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book style fantasy action, some disturbing images of characters getting burned and stabbed, zombie-like characters, monsters
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2023

Copyright WB 2023
I get the feeling everyone was just calling it in on this one. The DCCU is getting a makeover under James Gunn and Peter Safran and who knows what will happen given the prospect of the catastrophic leadership of David Zaslav burying his bad decisions and collecting a huge paycheck with a possible sale of Warner-Discovery to Paramount. And Jason Mamoa already made it clear this was his last Aquaman movie. Whether the behind-the-scenes is the reason for this lackluster, derivative entry in the DC Cinematic Universe or not, the movie is a wait-for-streaming for all but the most devoted fans.

In our last episode, Aquaman (Momoa) killed a pirate named Jesse Kane, and his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) vows to kill Aquaman in revenge. And Aquaman seizes control of the underwater kingdom from his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson). An extra scene in the credits has David Kane joining forces with marine scientist Stephen Shin (Randall Park), who promises to help David get his revenge if David will help him find the lost kingdom under the sea.

We pick up a few years later, where, in the first of a series of clangingly obvious foreshadowing signals, Arthur/Aquaman is now married to Mera (Amber Heard) and he tells us the most important thing in the world to him is their baby son, Junior. Aquaman divides his time between his home at the shore, with his human father, Tom (Temuera Morrison) helping to care for Junior, and his undersea kingdom. He is often frustrated with the bureaucracy of the kingdom’s council. And he is very concerned about the land countries destroying the environment, but, with his kingdom’s long history of secrecy, he cannot reach out to the upper world.

David has found the lost kingdom and the source of immense evil power in the black trident. A frozen spirit who looks like a cross between Groot and the Green Goblin says he will give that power to David if he will bring him the descendent of his enemy, which turns out to be guess who.

Actually, it’s guess whos, but that comes later. In order to fight David, Aquaman will have to team up with Orm, the half-brother who tried to kill him, and who is now in prison. The council will never approve, knowing that breaking Orm out of prison will start a war with his captors, but no matter, Aquaman does it anyway.

Much of the storyline is similar to “The Black Panther,” a kingdom with superior technology trying to decide whether to let the rest of the world know who they are and a villain seeking revenge with a conclusion for one character very reminiscent of Killmonger. And the mechanical octopus-like machine seems an awful lot like the one from “The Incredibles.” Topo, the real (CGI) octopus, is, fun, though, and I wish we’d seen more of him. The special effects range from okay to pretty good. Martin Short makes the best of a character who seems like a cross between Jabba the Hutt and a champion from RuPaul’s drag race.

It swings back and forth between meaningless nods to the issue of climate change (the most damaging technology is imaginary), action scenes with lots of monsters and machines, cliche dialog (“It’s time for me to reclaim my destiny!”), and corny winks at the audience. Here’s hoping the Gunn/Safran regime can do better.

NOTE: Stay for one mid-credits scene

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and constant comic book-style action with some grisly images of monsters. Characters are in peril and there are graphic wounds.

Family discussion: What influenced the relationship between Arthur and Orm? How would we think of environmental threats differently if we thought humanoid creatures lived there? Why did Aquaman try to save David?

If you like this, try: the other DC comics films and the comic books, especially the Neal Adams versions

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