A Private War

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 4:33 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent images, language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Brutal wartime violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 4, 2019

Copyright 2018 Aviron Pictures
I reviewed A Private War for rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

The dramatic, personal story of Colvin herself is absorbingly told here, largely because of Pike’s dynamic performance, showing us a woman who was courageous enough to risk her life for a story on a daily basis but remained vulnerable enough to make the stories viscerally compelling. That combination took a terrible toll. She used sex and booze to numb her feelings but they could not stop the nightmares. “You’re not going to get anywhere if you acknowledge fear,” she says, but she admits that after the danger is over, she feels it. It is surreal to see her back in London at an elegant gala event, picking up another journalism award in between trips to war zones where she has to maintain enough distance from the carnage all around her to write about it – and keep from becoming part of it. The contrast in perspective and priorities between Colvin and her editor (an excellent Tom Hollander) makes a deeper point about the uneasy and sometimes conflicted relationship between editors trying to sell papers and reporters trying to get the story read.

To the extent we need to know why she had this compulsion and whether she missed having a home and family, those elements are present without being reductive or simplistic.

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Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Journalism War

The Grinch

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 4:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 4, 2019

Copyright Illumination 2018
My DVD pick of the week is “The Grinch,” which I reviewed for rogerebert.com.

An excerpt:

The visuals are delightfully Seussian, all curves and slants. I loved the mitten-shaped windows on one of the houses and the way that Whoville’s Christmas decorations make it look like a captivatingly intricate gingerbread village. In contrast, the Grinch’s mountain top lair is bare and cavernous, empty and solitary, far from the warmth of the Whovian homes.

While this is not especially inventive, there are some clever parallels as the Grinch and Cindy Lou each have to come up with a plan for Christmas Eve. They write out their schemes with the same two words alone on a huge surface: “Santa Claus.” And both must assemble helpers and equipment without anyone finding out.

The smaller details are the most fun, especially when the Grinch brings on an enormous, yak-looking reindeer named Fred to pull his fake Santa sleigh. Or when a relentlessly cheery Whovian (Kenan Thompson) with the fanciest Christmas decorations in town keeps insisting that he and the Grinch are best friends.

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Animation Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy For the Whole Family Holidays Remake

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Posted on October 31, 2018 at 8:04 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild peril
Profanity: Some mild languages
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, swords, falls, no one hurt, characters grieving sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 28, 2019
Copyright 2018 Disney

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is a beautiful empty mess of a movie. The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas and costumes by Jenny Beavan are genuinely enchanting. Disney is a modern-day Medici, giving work to the world’s top artisans and the look of the film is gorgeously imagined. But boy, it’s like a fabulously wrapped gift that once you remove the ribbons and paper turns out to be nothing but an empty box. Ultimately, the visuals are so sumptuous and look-at-me that they overwhelm the story.

It is inspired, of course, by the classic ballet, which, let’s all admit, is not much of a story, based on a 200 year old tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann about a young girl named Clara who defeats an evil mouse king with the help of a nutcracker who comes to life. It’s just there to provide an excuse to play the one of the most beloved orchestral pieces of all time, the celestial Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite and to perform the now-classic dances. Half of the Nutcracker is just a performance put on for Clara by dolls and toys of different nationalities.

Almost as well-loved as the ballet, a perennial holiday favorite, is the sequence in Disney’s “Fantasia” (which premiered in 1940, four years before the first US performance of the Nutcracker ballet). Fish swim sinuously to the Arabian Dance music, and fairies bring winter to the forest to Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. But what everyone remembers best is the mushrooms dancing to the Chinese section, one tiny mushroom racing to keep up.

In this version, Clara (Mackenzie Foy, struggling with her English accent and struggling even more with a story that veers from dull to wha??) is the middle child in family in mourning following the death of the mother. It is their first Christmas without her, and they are all feeling lost. Clara’s father (Matthew Macfadyen) tells the children that their mother left them each a gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, a favorite ball gown for her older sister, toy soldiers for her younger brother, and for Clara an intricate egg-shaped box without the key to unlock it. The note says that everything Clara needs is inside.

Clara, like her mother, is a gifted mechanical engineer (she amuses her brother with a clever Rube Goldbergian contraption that deserves more of a payoff later, but the filmmakers do not appear to be paying much attention or expecting us to be, either). So, at the very fancy Christmas Eve party where her father’s primary concern is that Clara dance with him “because everyone expects it,” Clara does just what he told her not to do — she sneaks off to find the host, her godfather (Morgan Freeman, in an eyepatch), who is ignoring the guests and tinkering in his workroom. She thinks he might have a key. And of course in a way, he does.

The next thing we know, Clara has been led to a mysterious Oz/Narnia-like enchanted land, where a mouse steals the key and she chases after him. With the help of a nutcracker come to life (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she learns some secrets about her mother and has to save the day from the evil character who wants to dominate the four realms. Believe me, you don’t need to understand this part. You probably don’t want to, either.

There are some references to “Fantasia,” including an image of a conductor and orchestra directly taken from the film. But why put the red mushrooms in the forest if they aren’t going to dance? Why bring in James Newton Howard to create a new score when it is definitively impossible to improve on Tchaikovsky? And why why why relegate Misty Copeland (mostly) to a credit sequence after the movie is over? The ballet scenes are frustratingly short, while chase scenes and PG-level action take far too much time.

Director Lasse Hallström, known for warm-hearted, deeply sympathetic films like “My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “Cider House Rules” had to leave the film for another project, and it was finished by Joe Johnston, known for skill with special effects stories like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” and “Jumanji.” This may explain a disjointed tone, particularly with one character whose transformation is fine as a matter of plot but jarringly wrong in tone that takes us completely out of the movie. It is lovely to have a fantasy film with a girl who has courage and agency, but the way it handles its themes of loss are disjointed as well, with a truly jarring disparity in the treatment of Clara and the rest of her family and slightly creepy suggestions about the way the girls make up to their father for the loss of their mother and about how evil and (mild) sexuality (double entendres) are linked.

This movie would be a lot better if it had fewer realms and better writers.

Parents should know that this is too intense for little ones, with scary soldiers, peril and some violence, swords, falls (no one hurt) and characters mourning a sad death of a parent.

Family discussion: What did the note from Clara’s mother mean? What made Clara different from her brother and sister? What made her change her mind about Mother Ginger? How do Clara and Sugar Plum respond differently to the loss of someone they loved?

If you like this, try: “The Wizard of Oz” and “Labyrinth”

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Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues Fantasy Features & Top 10s Movies Scene After the Credits

Hunter Killer

Posted on October 25, 2018 at 5:44 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive military action, peril, and violence, guns, explosions, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 26, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 27, 2019
Copyright 2018 Summit Premiere

Submarines provide instant drama because they are as closed off from the rest of the world as it is possible to be in the era of instant global communications. The officers have to make life and death decisions not only for themselves but sometimes for the whole world with limited information and ability to get orders from their commanders. They are stuck with each other in a setting that combines the maximum of isolation with the highest of stakes. That is why there are so many memorable submarine movies, from “The Hunt for Red October” to “Crimson Tide” to “U-571,” “Das Boot,” and even “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” There are also often fascinating details about the technology involved. And that is why Gerard Butler‘s latest movie about saving yet another world leader from personal and geopolitical catastrophe, “Hunter Killer,” holds our interest, despite the preposterousness of the plot.

The president of Russia has been kidnapped in a coup, and according to this film the only chance of rescue is up to the US Navy Seals and the captain of a US Navy submarine. If you can get on board with that idea, the mechanics and action should keep you on board through the end.

Butler plays Captain Joe Glass and we know he is a good guy because we first see him about to shoot a deer with a very manly bow and arrow but then decide not to when he sees the deer’s sweet mate and their baby. We see he is scrappy and tough but fair as he introduces himself to his new crew. He explains that he is not one of those fancy-pants Annapolis grads who learned what they do in a classroom. He’s an up-from-the bottom scrapper who will demand the best because he has had their jobs and knows what is possible.

It is really three movies in one as four Navy Seals enter Russia, first to get intel, and then, after their cameras reveal the coup, to rescue the kidnapped Russian president, the top brass in the Pentagon, including a skeptic (Gary Oldman), an intelligence officer (Linda Cardellini), and the decent guy trying to hold it together (Common), and then the attack sub led by Captain Glass. The other name for an attack submarine is hunter-killer.

The action scenes are powerfully staged, with outstanding sound and visual effects. And the film skillfully balances the big booms with the small moments between the (mostly) men. The film’s most compelling scene is when Glass has to find a way to gain the trust of a Russian captain (the late Michael Nyqvist, showing canny grizzled wisdom) very quickly and the two men recognize that they have more in common with each other than they ever will with the guys back home giving them orders based on politics and computer screens. Toby Stephens is also excellent as the leader of the Navy Seals.

There’s a lot of tech talk and tough talk and thousand yard stares. But there’s also some impressive action and a storyline that, let’s face it, is no more outlandish than current headlines and much more satisfying.

Parents should know that this film includes extended military peril and violence, guns, bombs, explosions, kidnapping, political coup, characters injured and killed, a brief crude reference, and strong language.

Family discussion: What difference did it make that Captain Glass had served as a crewman? What made the Russian and American captains trust each other?

If you like this, try: “Under Siege” and “The Hunt for Red October”

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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies

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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