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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Lisa Frankenstein

Posted on February 8, 2024 at 12:43 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violent content, sexual assault|, language, bloody Images, sexual material, teen drinking, and drug content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters brutally killed, character sees her mother killed by an ax murderer, re-animated corpse, mutilation, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Lisa Frankenstein Copyright 2024 Focus

An uneven mash-up of 80s teen comedy and horror wisely relies on the terrific Kathryn Newton as the title character, a high school girl whose mother was hacked to death by an ax murderer. Her father quickly remarried and they have moved in with her new stepmother, Janet (Carla Gugino), and step-sister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), a sunny-spirited cheerleader.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody famously began her film, “Jennifer’s Body,” with Amanda Seyfried saying, “Hell is a teenage girl.” That is the theme of that film, this film, and even her sweet, beloved screenplay for “Juno.” “Lisa Frankenstein’s” best moments are the ones that play off of the idea that horror and high school are a lot closer than we like to admit. So when Lisa falls for a re-animated corpse of a 19th century musician who died young, she matter-of-factly explains to him that Taffy told her it’s a mistake to try to change a boy, so she is just going to accept him the way he is, rotted, foul-smelling flesh and all.

Well, she does clean him off. When he first staggers into her house, covered with mud from the grave, he looks like a golem. And he does not speak. Cole Sprouse plays a character who is just identified in the credits as “the Creature” (an allusion, like the title, to the original Frankenstein story — remember, Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster). He worked with a mime to make his non-verbal character as expressive as possible. Once the mud is washed off, as he becomes physically and emotionally re-connected to the world of the living, he gives us a sense of who he was and what he is feeling.

Newton, who memorably starred in the body-switching horror comedy “Freaky,” playing a high school girl whose body is occupied by the 6’5″ deranged serial killed played by Vince Vaughn, brings just the right tone to Lisa, who begins the story still shell-shocked from the loss of her mother and her new home with the superficially welcoming Janet and the just plain superficial Taffy. She finds it comforting to visit the abandoned cemetery in the woods, and that is where she see the grave of the Creature, with the handsome bust on the headstone. She whispers that she wishes she was with him, and somehow that calls him to her. Luckily, her after-school job doing repairs in a dry cleaning ship has given her sewing skills that will come in handy when it turns out the Creature needs some replacement body parts.

Williams relies too heavily on 80s references to make her points. Those who did not come of age in that era will not have the instant emotional connection (or laugh) she is hoping for. The opening credits are a witty mash-up of 80s-era Lisa Frank designs and Victorian silhouette animation. It is a lot of fun to see Newton as Lisa become confident and brave, rocking those 80s, Madonna-influenced outfits, the 80s songs still hold up, and it is entertaining to see some switch-ups on the usual rom-com tropes. It’s the Creature who gets the trying-on-clothes sequence, for example. First-time feature director Zelda Williams (the daughter of Robin Williams) has some strong ideas but the tone wobbles when it tries to straddle.

Parents should know that this is a horror movie and many characters are murdered in a gory manner. It includes sexual references and teen partying.

Family discussion: What 80s touches are most important in this movie? Why was Lisa so drawn to the abandoned cemetery? What do you like best about horror movies?

If you like this, try: “Freaky” and “Young Frankenstein”

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The Last Voyage of the Demeter

Posted on August 10, 2023 at 5:56 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for bloody violence
Profanity: Mild old-fashioned language including racist epithet
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with many jump scares and disturbing, graphic images, many characters murdered including a child, fires
Diversity Issues: An issue in the film
Date Released to Theaters: August 11, 2023

Copyright Universal 2023
There have been more than 80 movies about Bram Stoker’s Dracula and many, many more inspired but the original story of the Transylvanian nobleman who sleeps by day, never drinks wine, but sucks the blood from human victims unless they’re lucky enough to be carrying garlic and crosses. We’ve seen decadent but elegant vampires, sexy vampires, teenage vampires, even cute cartoon vampires. And now we have “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” a title that gives away the ending away. That is a good thing if what you are looking for is seeing the ship’s crew picked off one by one, signaled with ominous music. Otherwise, skip it.

It is beautiful to look at. The cinematography of Roman Osin and Tom Stern and the settings from production designer Edward Thomas have created an evocative world of 1890s sailing ships and their ports. But the dialogue is clunky, the story is predictable, and most of the characters are one-dimensional. It just makes films that really make you appreciate the artistry of the best of a beast in an enclosed, isolated space films like “Alien” and “The Thing” even more.

Corey Hawkins is the exception as Clemens, a last-minute addition to the crew when one member is spooked by the dragon insignias on a crate being loaded onto the ship. He is an educated man of science with expertise in celestial navigation and medicine. As the other crew members talk about what they are going to to with the bonus money they will get for an on-time delivery of the cargo, Clemens says what he wants money cannot buy — he wants “to understand the world.”

Also on board, at least a the beginning of the voyage, are the Captain (Liam Cunningham), who has decided this will be his last trip, his young grandson (“C’mon C’mon’s” soulful-eyed Woody Norman), and the crew member picked to take over the Captain’s job, David Dastmalchian and Wojchec

The ship sets sail with high spirits and good humor. But then things start to get unsettling, weird and very scary. We know this already because we see what is happening, but just in case we get suspenseful music and portentous dialogue, both heavy-handed.

There are animals on board, including a beloved dog. Something attacks them. Suspicion falls on the new crew member. Inside one of the crates is…a badly injured woman, unconscious and infected. Clemens gives her blood transfusions while crew members suggest tossing her overboard. He wants to take her to the nearest port but no one wants to miss the on-time bonus. So they keep sailing.

And that means we have one dark, stormy night after another, and that means one victim after another. The woman finally regains consciousness to provide some exposition. Her name is Anna (“Game of Thrones'” Aisling Franciosi) and she is a snack, not just in the current slang sense meaning attractive but in the sense of being a nosh for the personification of evil in the crate with the dragon on it.

This version of Dracula is not the kind to be warded off with a cross or a Bible. He can appear and disappear, and as he gets stronger, there are other powers, too. But he does not have enough powers to make this movie more than a series of jump scares and graphic injuries.

Parents should know that this is a horror movie with a vampire, so almost all of the characters are killed in very graphic and disturbing ways. This includes a child and a beloved pet and characters who sacrifice themselves to save others. Some characters burst into flames. There is some crude talk and a racist epithet.

Family discussion: Who had to make the most difficult choice? Which version of Dracula do you like the best?

If you like this, try: Some of the other Dracula movies including the classic with Bela Lugosi and “Nosferatu” — and the book by Bram Stoker

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Haunted Mansion

Posted on July 26, 2023 at 7:54 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for scary action and some thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended horror-style images, scary ghosts, many references to murder and mayhem, disturbing images, very sad (offscreen) deaths
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 28, 2023

Copyright Disney 2023
I am a huge fan of Disney World’s Haunted Mansion and I enjoyed this movie but I have to admit the biggest laugh I got was from the opening credits listing Jared Leto as “The Hatbox Ghost.” I mean, talk about too on the nose.

We will not speak of Disney’s first attempt to make a movie based on one of its most popular attractions, except to say that this one is much, much better, with a starry cast, Disney’s can’t-be-beat production design from
Darren Gilford, and, like the theme park attraction, just the right balance of chills, thrills, and comedy.

I highly recommend the “Behind the Attraction” episode about the creation of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and Disney World (on Disney+). It has a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes details about the people and the choices that went into creating the creepy house with elongated elevator, the “Doom Buggy,” and the hitchhiking ghosts that follow you home. You will see th “breath mint, no it’s a candy mint” back-and-forth about whether it was supposed to be funny or scary, and how it ended up as both. Director Justin Simien (“Dear White People” and screenwriter Katie Dippold expertly balance scary and funny in the tradition of the attraction and of classic haunted house films like “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Canterville Ghost,” and “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.”

The setting, like the imaginary location of the Disney World attraction, is New Orleans. We meet our reluctant hero, Ben Mathias (LaKeith Stanfield) as a shy astrophysicist specializing in lenses to view the previously unseen around us, as he is meeting the woman who will become his wife, Alyssa (Charity Jordan). She says she is also in the business of locating the unseen. She conducts ghost tours.

A few years later, Alyssa has died, and Ben is consumed with grief and guilt. He drinks too much, and he is a grumpy tour guide, strictly history, nothing paranormal. (I’ve been on a New Orleans ghost tour, by the way, well worth it, but watch out for some damaging misdirection.) He gets a visit from a priest named Kent (Owen Wilson), who has been asked to perform an exorcism at a huge haunted mansion recently purchased by a doctor (Gabbie, played by Rosario Dawson with a severe hairstyle), a recent widow with a young son. Ben has no interest in the job and is certain there is no such thing as ghosts, but he cannot resist the $10,000 fee. He half-heartedly pretends to use his fancy lens in a camera with a dead battery to seek ghosts in the house and pronounces it ghost-free.

Needless to say, it is not. And one of the ghosts, a very soggy one, follows him home and forces him to return, this time with a working camera. Soon Gabbie, her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), Kent and Ben are trying to figure out what is behind all of the hauntings, along with two other members of the team, historian Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito) and medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish). This self-titled Dream Team has to figure out how to placate the evil spirit before he collects his 1000th soul and is able to wreck havoc on the rest of the world.

The fabulously talented cast gives their all and their all is great fun to watch. Stanfield is, as always brilliant, giving us authenticity in the depiction of his sense of loss without conflicting with the movie’s overall heightened tone. Haddish is hilarious but grounded as the medium, and DeVito gets a chance to, I’m just going to say, get wild. Fans of the attraction will get a big kick out of the many references to its most beloved and iconic objects and characters. This should be a Halloween favorite for generations of families.

There is also a powerhouse list of supporting performers, including Oscar-winner Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota, one of the attraction’s most iconic figures. The original was named for Imagineer Leota “Toombs” Thomas, who provided the spooky head chanting incantations in the crystal ball. Daniel Levy has a tiny role (please let there be deleted scenes) as an actor in another spooky historic mansion. And Hasan Minhaj is very funny as a skeptical but very accurate police sketch artist. As for Oscar-winner Leto, well, he is, as is often the case, unrecognizable as a character originally designed for the attraction but not added until much later, when the technology caught up with the concept.

The movie is scary at times but the references to many murders and offscreen deaths that have caused devastating grief for the characters is more disturbing than the gruesome imagery. Simien is very good at breaking the tension with humor just when it is needed. Like the theme park classic, t is sure to be a Halloween favorite for generations to come.

NOTE: Reportedly, Simien insisted on a Black leading man. For those of us with a sense of movie history, it was especially satisfying to have a Black man as the hero, because this genre often had some of the most damaging stereotypes in movie history, with the only Black characters being terrified in a silly manner as comic relief.

Parents should know: This movie includes many scary and disturbing paranormal images and concepts, with murderous ghosts and grisly images. There are extremely sad offscreen deaths, including a parent and a wife.

Family discussion: Do you believe in ghosts? What did the characters learn about the best way to deal with them? Watch the “Behind the Attraction” episode about the Haunted Mansion and when you get a chance, visit it!

If you like this, try: “The Canterville Ghost,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” and “The Addams Family” and its sequel

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