The Boss Baby

Posted on March 30, 2017 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: "Formula" that keeps babies from growing up
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style action peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Copyright Dreamworks 2017

Yes, sure, babies are adorable and it is wonderful fun to nibble their toes and kiss the backs of their necks. But let’s be honest. They are also tiny tyrants. Who decides when it is time to eat and sleep? It is not the adults in the household. And who is no longer the top priority in the home anymore? The older child! (Let me state for the record that my two younger sisters are lovely people and I couldn’t be luckier to have them as siblings, but those first few months are tough.)

“The Boss Baby,” inspired by the Marla Frazee book, takes these ideas hilariously to the extreme with a baby who is literally the boss.  He arrives complete with suit, tie, Rolex, briefcase, and the ultra-adult voice of Alec Baldwin. This is deeply disturbing for Tim (Miles Bakshi, grandson of animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi), whose previously blissful life of undiluted devotion from his mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Jimmy Kimmel) is destroyed by this demanding creature and it seems that only Tim really understands what a monster he is.

Somehow, Mom and Dad, a sweet couple who both work for a pet food company, can only see the baby’s cute little face and have no idea that the baby is really a spy, even though “if things weren’t to his immediate satisfaction, he had a fit.”  They are so numb from sleep deprivation and so captivated by what looks to them like an infant that they never suspect there is anything unusual going on.  But Tim overhears the Boss Baby talking to his office — and then the Boss Baby blandly tosses some money his way and asks for some sushi: “I’d kill for a spicy tuna roll.”

Once Tim learns that the baby will return to his office after his mission is complete, he and the baby join forces to take on the real villain of the story — I will not spoil his very funny nefarious plan.

Director Tom McGrath says that this film is a tribute and apology to his older brother, because like all younger siblings, he was for a time the “boss baby.”  He gives the story a pleasantly retro look, setting, and soundtrack, evocative of old-school cartoons and an era before everyone was mesmerized by devices. It is surprisingly funny and even more surprisingly sweet. Tim is a great kid, brave, smart, and wonderfully imaginative, and it is nice to see a movie for children that is about something other than following your dreams or learning to be confident. It’s about visceral feelings everyone will recognize — worrying that there is not enough love to go around, jealousy, competitiveness. And it is also about feelings we should recognize but too often overlook: the importance of imagination and the pleasures of being a kid.

NOTE: Stay all the way through the credits for an extra scene!

Parents should know that there is cartoon-style peril and violence along with some potty humor and schoolyard language.  The theme of the movie centers on issues of sibling rivalry.

Family discussion:  Why wasn’t the Boss Baby sent to earth as a regular baby? What are the best and worst parts of having a sibling?

If you like this, try: the “Madagascar” films, from the same director

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Fifty Shades Darker

Posted on February 9, 2017 at 5:19 pm

Copyright 2016 Universal Pictures

Ibsen had it right in “A Doll’s House.” When his heroine walked out and slammed the door at the end of the play, he left it there. She didn’t come back in two sequels. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, wearing bangs, the universal signifier of adorkability), despite her name, is not that resolute. In “Fifty Shades of Gray” she was a shy college student introduced to the Red Room of Pain and the world of bondage and submission by fabulously handsome and fabulously wealthy and fabulously troubled Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). As he explains to her, it is the submissive who has the power in the relationship. The dominant inflicts pain but the submissive sets the limits. Ana set the ultimate limit by walking out on Christian at the end of the first film. But just days later, he comes to a photography show featuring six huge portraits of Ana, buys them all because he doesn’t want other people gawking at her. The woman who just left him nevertheless consents to let him take her to dinner (“because I’m hungry”), and then invites him to dinner. After first insisting there would be no sex and then that they need to take it slowly, of course they end up having sex, and pretty soon he’s spanking her again, but only after she asks for it.

Maybe if you turned off the sound, it all might seem less dull and silly, like the kind of high-end perfume commercials they only show before Christmas and Valentine’s Day. With the sound on, it alternates between syrupy pop songs and clunky dialogue. Fans of the books may enjoy seeing the characters on screen but those unfamiliar with what I will generously call the storyline will find it more like a random series of what I will generously call events. Putting the book on screen reveals its essential flimsiness, its origins as “Twilight” fan fiction showing through. As with “Twilight,” this is the story of a girl whose purity of heart is so powerful she is able to tame the ultimate predator. Like “Twilight,” he is surrounded by a large, complicated, powerful family, most of whose members should have been jettisoned for the movie version because they do not add anything. Unlike “Twilight,” which was explicitly envisioned as a romance without sex (until it wasn’t), this is a shipper, with lots and lots of sex. While there is much talk about a “vanilla” sex life, there is also a lot of naughty stuff with fancy lingerie (where did it disappear to between the apartment and the party?) and sex toys (“That is NOT going in my butt!” Ana says merrily at the sight of a pretty set of Ben Wa balls).

While both Ana and Christian are supposed to be driven for professional achievement, they do not spend much time actually working. Ana loves her job as an assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) the head of fiction for a small independent publisher. About half an hour after we realize he is a scummy guy who is trying to have sex with her, she realizes he is a scummy guy who is trying to have sex with her. So of course Christian has him fired and Ana gets his job. Seriously, I have seen six year olds playing with Barbies who came up with more believable workplace storylines.

Meanwhile Ana is bothered by Christian’s past, including an abused drug addict mother who died of an overdose, a suicidal ex-sub who is obsessed with him, and the older woman who seduced him when he was 15 and introduced him to the pleasures of pain (Kim Basinger, herself a pioneer of pretty, soft-focus soft-core S&M in “9 1/2 Weeks”). And Ana is trying to get Christian to tell her about his past, which begins with her drawing a line with red lipstick around his scarred but super-jacked chest to delineate what she should and should not touch. She apparently redraws it on him every day because it is still there days later, no smudges.

Sam Taylor-Johnson brought some humor and a woman’s perspective to the first chapter. She also streamlined it to remove irrelevant and distracting details, left in here for no reason. How does Ana not know Christian’s housekeeper and why is there a scene of their first meeting? Also, there are a lot of lacy little underpants in this movie, mostly being removed. There is also a situation where a lot of misery would have been avoided with a phone call or text message and yet it doesn’t happen, for no reason other than prolonging the agony.

This sequel, reportedly with more involvement by the author, is lackluster fan service. I’d even call it vanilla.

NOTE: Stay through the beginning of the credits for a teaser of part three, coming out in time for Valentine’s Day 2018.

Parents should know that this movie includes very explicit sexual references and situations, sexual harassment, extensive nudity, sex toys and issues of bondage and submission, very strong language, peril including a gun and a helicopter crash, and spouse and child abuse.

Family discussion: Why did Christian tell Ana not to touch his chest? Why did Ana care so much about her job?

If you like this, try; “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “9 1/2 Weeks”

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Posted on November 27, 2016 at 4:40 pm

Copyright 2016 Disney

Disney has kept the best of its reliable formula and freshened it up with a spirited story inspired by the ancient myths of the Pacific Islands and a spirited heroine who dreams of adventure, not finding a prince. It is gorgeously animated, heartwarming, exciting, and slyly self-aware. At one point a character notes that if she has a dress and an animal sidekick, she must be a princess. And in a scene way at the end of the credits (stay ALL the way to the end), a character re-appears to compare himself to another well-known animated Disney character. But it is also utterly sincere in its affection for the heroine and her quest.

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) lives on an Polynesian island paradise. Her father is the king and she will someday be the community’s leader. She has the run of the island, and loves the shore. She has the heart of an explorer, but her parents tell her that their people do not go beyond the reef because it is not safe out on the ocean. They do their best to warn her, but there is nothing that can stop Moana’s curiosity and sense of adventure, even after an initial voyage goes badly. Moana wants to know what happened to the courageous voyagers who once led expeditions from her island led by wayfarers who navigated with the stars. The ocean itself invites her to explore.

When an environmental disaster strikes, Moana realizes that the rules have to change. Her people will be wiped out unless she can return the heart that was stolen from Te Fiti, the goddess who created the world. Her heart, a pounamu stone, was stolen by the mischief-maker Maui (Dwayne Johnson), and the destruction that created has reached Moana’s island. Moana needs to find Maui and return the heart, before all of the island’s plants and fish turn to ashes.

Moana finds Maui, but he does not want to help, he has lost the stone, and Te Fiti broke the magical fishhook that is the source of most of his power. Without a working fishhook, his ability to shapeshift is badly compromised, leading to some hilarious misfires (watch quickly for one of his mistaken personas, a character from “Frozen”). Johnson’s ebullience is perfect for Maui, reminiscent of Robin Williams as the genie in “Aladdin,” with his mercurial personas and helpful but trickster role. He is covered with Maori-style tattoos which delightfully interact with him, a mini-movie of their own.

The two of them go on a journey filled with adventure and with great songs from “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i. Highlights include Maui’s riotous “You’re Welcome,” as he explains all that he has given mankind (inspired by Maori creation myths) and “Shiny,” performed by Jemaine Clement as a treasure-loving giant crab. Moana is an appealing heroine, brave, smart, determined and devoted to her community. She is even devoted to her animal sidekick, a scrawny chicken with very little brainpower.

The animation is spectacular, with the ocean a character of its own, pygmy pirates, the giant crab, and a lava monster. And the resolution is especially satisfying, with not just redemption and triumph for our heroes and justice, compassion, and forgiveness rather than demonization of the character who would otherwise be the typical villain. The loveable characters, hummable songs, and heartwarming and joyful conclusion make this a holiday season treat for the whole family.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for an extra scene. And be sure to get there in time for the adorable animated short before the film, “Inner Workings,” a sort of variation of “Inside Out,” as we see a man’s internal organs responding to the world around him and enticing him to transcend his daily drudgery with a visit to the beach. It was directed by veteran Disney animator Leo Matsuda.

Parents should know that this film includes action-style peril and violence with some disturbing images, sad (offscreen) deaths, brief schoolyard language, and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: Why didn’t the ocean return the heart itself? What did Moana learn from Maui’s story about his parents?

If you like this, try: “Whale Rider,” “Brave,” and “Mulan” — and try navigating without GPS

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Doctor Strange

Posted on November 3, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Prolonged fantasy/superhero peril and violence, serious car accident, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters (Asian male character in the comics portrayed by a white actress)
Date Released to Theaters: November 4, 2016

Doctor_Strange_posterIf they ever give a Best Supporting Prop Oscar, it should go to Doctor Strange’s Cape of Levitation, the most endearing magical implement/sidekick since Sorceror Mickey’s brooms in “Fantasia.” And if they ever give out a Best Superhero Movie Producer and Sustainer of the MCU, the lifetime achievement version should go to Kevin Feige, who has once again figured out just the right balance between consistency and distinctiveness, between action and wit, and, perhaps the most difficult hurdle, between magic and superpowers. “Doctor Strange” has a superb cast, a witty script, and some knockout special effects.

Doctor (not Dr.) Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon. He is also arrogant and obsessed with work with a biting, acerbic wit. If this sounds a bit Tony Stark-ish, you’re on the right track.

He is severely injured in a car accident.  (Distracted driving, kids, wait to send that text or review that CAT scan image until you have safely parked the car.)  His hands are shattered, with nerve damage and tremors, which will end his career as a surgeon.  The man who prided himself on being able to diagnose and cure the most hopeless cases cannot find a way to heal himself.

And then the man of rationality and science, with nothing more to lose, has to try something new. He hears of a man who found a miraculous cure in Nepal, so, despite his skepticism about “alternative” medicine, he goes there only to find that what is involved is an entirely “alternative” way of thinking about the world, the universe, and, perhaps most difficult, himself.

His sensei is known as The Ancient One (the white female Tilda Swinton as a character portrayed as an Asian male in the comics), an ageless and endlessly wise and powerful teacher who shows Strange that the reality he believes he understands and can control is one of many.  The Avengers protect the material world from threats, but The Ancient One and her accolytes protect us from magical threats. Is it indelicate to point out that the most severe threats are all coming from former students, a la Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, and Professor X’s former students, so maybe the best course is for The Ancient One to shut down the school entirely?  And follow her own advice that if you silence your ego your power will rise?

Oh, who cares. This is when we start to get the very cool special effects, with “Inception”-style planes folding over each other and M.C. Escher-style chases.  And you gotta love a neuro-surgeon turned wizard who throws down references to Bob Seger and Beyoncé and, in the big, big moment, finds a solution that is as clever as it is magical.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes, one at the very end.

Parents should know that this film includes intense fantasy and superhero action, peril, and violence, car accident, disturbing and graphic images, characters injured and killed, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why does Strange insist on being called “Doctor?” Why does The Ancient One first turn him down?

If you like this, try: the Steve Ditko-era comics, “Inception,” Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” series, and the “Avengers” films

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Posted on August 18, 2016 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Monsters, peril, sad offscreen deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 19, 2016
Date Released to DVD: November 20, 2016 ASIN: B01KMKM4TW
Copyright 2016 Focus
Copyright 2016 Focus

LAIKA Studios’ fourth film, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” is a fable of exquisite beauty and meaning, gorgeously produced in the most painstaking of all forms of filmmaking, stop-motion animation. They are the modern-day equivalent of the monks who labored for years on each page of illuminated manuscripts.

Every detail in every frame and every element of the story, set in a magical version of ancient Japan, reflects the simple profundity of the ancient and contemporary Japanese art that inspired it. LAIKA’s last film, “The Boxtrolls,” was set in a cluttered, sooty, steampunkish imaginary Victorian London, and the studio’s motto was “no square corners, no straight lines.” This time it went in the opposite direction, with the muted palette and spare, carefully balanced settings of Japanese woodblock prints and the sharp lines and perfect corners of origami.

One of the hardest elements to get right in stop-motion is water, because it is impossible to control it frame to frame. In “Boxtrolls,” the studio’s greatest technical triumph was an elaborate set-up for a brief scene in which a character touched standing water and created some ripples. LAIKA loves to challenge itself, and so this film starts with a storm at sea. A woman we will learn is Kubo’s mother is desperately trying to stay upright on a tiny boat. We know she is escaping someone or something, but we are not sure yet what or who it is. And we do not learn until she is washed up on the shore, exhausted and hurt, that she is not alone. In her backpack, there is a baby. It is Kubo.

Like Harry Potter, Kubo had a father who died trying to protect him from a danger so great that Kubo bears a wound. One of his eyes is gone. Kubo’s mother survived, but she used all of her magic to save him and now she is frail, forgetful, and inconsolable.

When we next see them, he is about 11, and has been caring for her all his life. Each day, he makes her food and feeds her. And then he walks from their home in a cave on top of a cliff into the nearest town, where he tells stories in the market. He has the power to bring origami characters to life to act out thrilling tales of the great samurai warrior Hanzo. The townspeople love his stories, which always end with a cliffhanger, and they toss him coins.

The community has an annual Obon festival, where they light lanterns and remember the dead. Kubo wants to go, so he violates his mother’s rule about never being out after dark. And the danger she protected him from years ago comes after him in the form of his mother’s two spooky sisters, both voiced by Rooney Mara and both wearing implacable-expression white masks and terrifying swoopy capes made of black feathers.

Kubo’s mother has just enough magic left to save him one more time. And then she is gone, and Kubo finds himself on a journey, accompanied by the live version of the small monkey charm he always carried in his pocket. He and Monkey (Charlize Theron) set off to find the three pieces of Hanzo’s armor that he will need to fight the sisters and their father, who wants Kubo’s other eye. Along the way they meet a samurai who has been cursed and turned into a giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey). And they meet and fight three different monsters, a giant skeleton, an underwater garden of eyes, and an enormous, floating, reticulated moon serpent, each giving Kubo a chance to discover his courage and power.

This is a gorgeous, epic adventure with grandeur, scope, and spectacular settings, every bit of it wonderfully imaginative. It reflects LAIKA’s own adventurous spirit in taking on narrative and technical challenges as daunting as that faced by any hero. Who else would try to create a stop-motion battle under water? Or take on, in a family movie, a quest that encompasses themes of family, story, courage, loss, destiny, and meaning? LAIKA understands that the most enduring fairy tales are not afraid to deal with darkness because that is the only way to understand its true message, here delivered in a breathtaking conclusion, of tenderness and forgiveness.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy-style peril and violence with monsters and magic, and sad deaths of parents.

Family discussion: Why did Kubo answer his grandfather’s questions the way he did? Why didn’t Monkey tell Kubo where she came from? Why did the two strings make a difference?

If you like this, try: “Coraline,” “Paranorman,” and “The Boxtrolls”

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