JoJo Rabbit

Posted on October 24, 2019 at 5:46 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language
Profanity: Strong and offensive language including anti-Semitic insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing peril and violence including a child injured in an explosion, wartime violence, bombs. guns, tragic deaths
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2019
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

The first thing you need to know is that writer/director Taika Waititi does not play HItler in “JoJo Rabbit,” and it does not portray the real Adolf Hitler as a comic figure. Waititi plays a child’s imaginary version of Hitler. He has more in common with Chris O’Dowd’s imaginary friend character in his very funny and endearing Moone Boy. In both, the adult male figure is a child’s idea of what a man is, or what he would like to be when he grows up. In the case of Jojo Rabbit, the nickname for the 10-year-old Austrian boy at the center of the film, he is especially in need of a role model because of the uncertainty in his own life and the upheavals that are all around him. So it makes sense that he would respond by clinging to something that seems strong and structured and certain. And that is why when we first see him, he is looking in the mirror to admire himself in his Hitler Youth uniform, very excited to learn all about becoming an active member of the Nazi party. His imaginary friend represents what he would like to be, but JoJo is a child, so to us, his version of Hitler is ten-year-old’s fantasy. Which means he is very silly.

I tell you all this because for the first half hour or so of “JoJo Rabbit” you might think you’re watching some sort of “Springtime for Hitler,” from “The Producers.” But it turns out that while “JoJo Rabbit” does portray the Nazis in a heightened, satiric, silly manner, this is not an insensitive or superficial film. But by the end, it wants to pack a wallop, as it should, and it does.

JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis, in a knockout of a performance) lives with his mother, Rosie (a career-best Scarlett Johansson, warm and witty). His father is off in the war but has not been heard from for a long while. JoJo and his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) go off to Hitler Youth camp, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), assisted by Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). The other boys laugh at him when he cannot bring himself to kill a rabbit (prompting his derisive nickname), and so to prove his courage, urged on by the imaginary Hitler, he takes a risk that leads to his being injured in an explosion, leaving scars on his face. He cannot return to school, so Rosie takes him to the Hitler Youth office and insists that Klenzdorf give him a job.

And then something happens that turns JoJo’s ideas about strength, courage, and power upside down. His ideas about Jews, too, though that takes a while. Waititi handles the tonal shift with great skill, and by the end of the film, the heightened tone blends seamlessly with the surreal absurdity of war, making the conclusion as meaningful to us as it is to the characters.

Parents should know that this movie is set in the last months of WWII and has wartime violence including guns and bombs, portrayal of virulent and systemic anti-Semitism. A child is injured in an explosion and a parent is murdered. Characters use strong language, drink alcohol, and smoke.

Family discussion: Why did JoJo imagine Hitler as an imaginary friend? What made him change his mind about Elsa? Why didn’t Elsa tell him what she knew about the letters?

If you like this, try: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows from the same writer/director. You may also enjoy satiric takes on war like “Oh, What a Lovely War,” “M*A*S*H,” and “King of Hearts.”

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Good Boys

Posted on August 15, 2019 at 5:36 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout - all involving tweens
Profanity: Very explicit, profane, and crude language used by young adults and 6th graders
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and alcohol use by young adults and 6th graders, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril with one gross injury, no one badly hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 16, 2019
Date Released to DVD: November 11, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019
If I could, I’d give “Good Boys” three different grades. I’d give it a B+ for the sweet, smart depiction of that stage of life — equally exhilarating and excruciating — when we make the thrilling, terrifying, transition from child to adult. I’d give it a B for the fun of the adventure the boys go on when they are trying to replace an expensive drone they broke trying to spy on a girl and her boyfriend. But I would give it a D for the cheapness of its humor, relying so heavily on 6th graders using the F word, trying beer and porn, buying drugs, and not understanding the cache of sex toys they find. I don’t find that funny. So, overall, I am not recommending this film. But I will give it credit for the parts that work, and recommend it only for anyone who finds it hilarious to see a child with a ball gag in his mouth — because two other children are trying to re-set his dislocated shoulder on their way to buying molly from some dealer in a fraternity.

The most significant conversation in the film is when a 6th grader is listening to two teenage girls who are close friends and realizes that they have only known each other a few years. He learns for the first time that the friends you make in grade school may not be the friends you have forever, and like so many revelations at that stage of life, this discovery is deeply disconcerting but also intriguing, opening up a whole new world of possibilities — and risks.

Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon) are best, best friends who call themselves the Bean Bag Boys. They do everything together and believe they always will. But one element of this stage of life is that any given 6th grader will go back and forth across the line between sophistication and abstract reasoning and a growing awareness of how much they don’t know (and how much even the adults around them don’t know) back to the more childish perspective. These are kids who have been lectured at school about the importance of consent but are not entirely clear on what it is that is being consented to. At this age, the people you feel close to are at a million different points along that continuum as well, so maybe you don’t feel as close to them anymore. As one of them acknowledges, hormones are making them crazy. The movie opens with him using a video game to expand the boobs of an avatar so he can masturbate — until then his father (Will Forte) comes in, sees what is happening, and congratulates his son for growing up.

Dad goes out of town warning his son not to touch the valuable drone he has for his work. But when Max desperately needs to learn how to kiss because he is invited to his first kissing party and the girl he loves and plans to marry but has not yet spoken to will be there and if he does not go and kiss her then life will have no meaning, he decides using the drone to spy on the teenage girl and her college age boyfriend is the answer to his problem. This is after he and the other Bean Bag Boys try doing a Google search for porn and discover it does not have much kissing. The girl is Hannah (Molly Gordon) and she and her best friend (Midori Francis as Lily) refuse to give it back. The boys take Hannah’s purse, which has some molly in a children’s vitamin bottle. (One of the movie’s funniest running jokes is the inability of the boys to open a child guard cap.)

And so the adventure begins, with the boys needing to get or replace the drone and the girls needing to get back or replace the drugs.

There are many sweet and funny moments, and the kids are great. There are wonderfully telling details, like the school anti-bullying squad. But the film cannot overcome the unpleasantness of the cheap humor and the sinking feeling that the filmmaking experience itself merits a visit from Child Protective Services.

Parents should know that this is a story about 6th graders that includes extremely raunchy, explicit material involving very crude and graphic sexual content, drugs and alcohol, some mild peril and violence, and very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Who are your beanbag boys? What made them friends? Why did Thor decide not to audition?

If you like this, try: “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”

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The Kid Who Would Be King

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence with monsters, characters injured and killed, beheading, swords, car crashes, references to mental illness and alcoholism of a parent, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 15, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
Every once in a while, a kid has to pull a sword from the stone and save the world. And what makes this particular kid the right one is thoughtfully presented in “The Kid Who Would be King,” this present-day retelling of the story of Arthur, the once and in this case literally future king. Louis Ashbourne Serkis plays Alex, a 12-year-old who is very close to his single mother (Denise Gough). His best friend is Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), who is regularly bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Alex comes to his defense and gets into a scuffle with the much bigger, tougher, bullies, but refuses to tell the headmistress or his mother who started it.

On the run from Lance and Kaye himself, Alex hides out in a construction site, where he sees a sword stuck in a stone and pulls it out. At home, he finds a book his father had given him about the story of King Arthur, inscribed to him: To Alex, the Once and Future King. At school, a gawky new student named “Merton” is so strange he seems like good news to Bedders, who tells Alex he will deflect attention from them as the formerly most tempting targets at the school. But “Merton” is in fact Merlin (Angus Imbrie), who is actually very old but looks like a teenager because he is living backwards, except when he flickers back into his actual age and looks like Patrick Stewart.

Merlin tells Alex that the sword is King Arthur’s Excalibur, to be used to defeat Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who has been waiting for the world to achieve a level of turmoil that would make it possible for her to return. If you’ve read the news lately, you will not be surprised to learn that the necessary level of turmoil has been achieved and surpassed.

Alex decides he has to find his father for guidance, and he asks Lance and Kaye to join him, noting that their names recall King Arthur’s closest allies, Sir Lancelot and Sir Kay, as well as Bedders/Sir Bedivere. Lance and Kaye may be bullies, but they are strong and brave, and may be persuaded to follow the Chivalric Code (or pretend to).

Meanwhile, Morgana is getting stronger, and she sends flaming skeleton emissaries on horseback to attack Alex. Merlin introduces the group to the real purpose of Stonehenge and the other prehistoric standing stone structures throughout England (think of them as subway stations) and gives them a sword-fighting tutorial with trees come to life in one of the movie’s best scenes.

Alex is very familiar with “chosen one” stories like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, where the hero is “chosen” in significant part from his biological heritage, and he believes that the gift from the father he never knew is proof of his own heritage as the reason for his fitness to carry Excalibur. The movie makes it clear that this is not the case. Alex will have to think about what it is that made him able to get the sword and how he can use those qualities to defeat Morgana.

Both Serkis and Imrie have some hefty heritages of their own, one the son of motion-capture wizard Andy Serkis and the other the son of “Calendar Girls” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” star Celia Imrie. Like the other young cast members, they have appealing screen presences, and Imrie in particular has loads of lanky charm, wearing a Led Zeppelin 1975 tour t-shirt and snarfing down the 21st century equivalent of his elixir. Director Joe Cornish of the cheeky “Attack the Block” keeps things lively, with plenty of humor to balance the action and a rousing finale with the entire school joining the fight.

Parents should know that this film has extensive fantasy peril and violence, with some scary images and monsters, chases, bullies, car crashes, a beheading, brief comic nudity (non-explicit) and some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why was Alex the right person to have the sword? Why did he choose Lance and Kaye to help him? Could you follow the movie’s version of the Chivalric Code?

If you like this, try: “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court,” “The Sword in the Stone,” and “Camelot”

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Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Posted on November 29, 2018 at 5:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence including bloody images, and some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril from animals and human hunter, characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 30, 2018
Copyright Netflix 2018

“Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is not the “Bear Necessities” Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s story about the boy raised by wolves and befriended by a cuddly bear and an elegant panther. This is more like Tennyson’s vision of nature as red in tooth and claw. Andy Serkis, master of the art of motion capture acting, has directed this much darker version of the story, with simultaneous release this week in theaters and on Netflix. The motion capture performances are striking. Parents need to know, however, although this is the story of a young boy befriended by talking animals, this is not for young children or for the faint of heart of any age.

Serkis brought along some of his “Hobbit” co-stars, and the movie opens with an introduction from Kaa the snake, voiced by Cate Blanchett telling us that the jungle traditions are being challenged, presumably from the incursion of humans. When a couple are killed by the tiger Shere Kahn (Benedict Cumberbatch), a baby is abandoned. The death of the parents is off-camera, discreetly shown by an overturned, single shoe. But the baby is smeared with blood. Like Harry Potter, he is the Boy Who Lived, and he is special.

A wolf pack wants to adopt the boy they call Mowgli, and that means a meeting of the council of animals. It is agreed that he can stay and we will learn that is only in part because it is in the nature of the wolf mother to feel tenderness toward a helpless baby of any species. While some of the animals fear that keeping Mowgli will bring man into the jungle looking for him, others think that he will help keep them safe from humans. And all of them know that Shere Kahn will be back for Mowgli, and that it will take the full force of the pack to keep him safe.

Mowgli grows up (Rohan Chan), very much at home in the jungle, though painfully aware that he does not have the natural abilities of his wolf brothers. They are being coached by Baloo the bear (Serkis) to pass a racing test to qualify them to become full members of the pack. Mowgli cannot keep up with them if he races on all fours, as they do.

The motion capture work is excellent, as expected from Serkis and the images and camera work are striking, worth seeing on a big screen. But the storyline never fully escapes its colonialist origins. There’s a reason we refer to “the law of the jungle” and no simple way to make that into a workable metaphor about the human world. Think of “The Lion King,” for example (with a live-action version coming next year). It’s fine to sing about the circle of life if you’re at the top of the food chain. Bagheera the panther (Christian Bale) explains to Mowgli that animals who kill must look their prey in the eye as they are dying “so that the soul does not depart alone.” Not much comfort to the departing soul. Mowgli finds appropriate ambivalence in the human world, where the native community has brought in a white hunter (Matthew Rhys) who is kind to Mowgli but will never appreciate the animals like the boy who lived with them. Like the boy himself, the movie is not able to resolve its conflicting dualities.

Parents should know that this film includes animal and human peril and violence, with characters injured and killed, some disturbing and graphic images, guns, fire, animal attacks, sad death of parents (off-screen), drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: How are the wolves different from the other animals? What kinds of tests do humans try to pass? Do you agree with Mowgli’s choice about where to live?

If you like this, try: Disney’s animated and live-action “Jungle Book” movies

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Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Posted on October 12, 2018 at 1:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style fantasy/mild horror peril and violence, creepy creatures. boo-scares
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 12, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 14, 2019

Copyright 2018 Columbia
My review of Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is on rogerebert.com.

The first “Goosebumps” movie was a lot of fun, with Jack Black playing real-life author R.L. Stine, whose hundreds of spooky-fun books for tweens have sold hundred of millions of copies. This sequel, with only a brief appearance by Black, is blander, with lower-wattage talent on and behind the screen. But the special effects are still top-notch and it is a pleasant little scare-fest for the Halloween season.

Parents should know that this film includes extended spooky-scary content with scary monsters, ghosts, witches, boo-scares, peril, action/cartoon-style peril and violence, some potty humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which is the scariest monster in the movie? Why do people like scary movies?

If you like this, try: “Monster House” and “Paranorman” and the Goosebumps books and first film

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