How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted on May 19, 2019 at 1:34 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/cartoon style peril and violence involving people and dragons
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 20, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019

My full review for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is posted at rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

The final chapter of the “How to Train Your Dragon” saga is visually stunning and emotionally satisfying, with a conclusion that may leave the parents in the audience a little tearful….Sometimes the banter in the film can be too silly, and the reintroduction of the characters can be a bit awkward, especially when one of the teenagers tries to flirt with Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). The script is also weakened by dumb insults between the twin characters, and an over-used storyline about whether a couple is ready to get married. But the opening scene of liberating caged dragons is excitingly staged and the film gets better quickly when it becomes more comfortable with its deeper themes. The characters have to rethink some of their ideas about tradition, change, what makes a home, and loss as “part of the deal that comes with love.”

The film’s breathtaking images provide a fitting accompaniment to the characters’ emotional struggles. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins served as a consultant on all three movies and I’m guessing he played a part in developing the exquisite quality of natural light, particularly in the flying scenes and a stunning phosphorescent-lit encounter. The visuals keep us inside a rich world of fantasy—the variations in dragon species continue to dazzle—one that is always grounded in human fears and feelings that are very real and very moving.

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Hotel Mumbai

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 5:43 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense terrorism violence with many characters injured and killed, disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: June 17, 2019
Copyright Bleeker Street 2019

“Look for the helpers.” That’s what Mr. Rogers told children to do when scary and terrible things happen. “You will always find people who are helping.” “Hotel Mumbai” is the story of the unspeakably sad and scary 2008 terrorist attack that lasted for four days in Mumbai, India, including a three-day attack at the luxurious Taj Palace and Tower hotel.

Inspired by the documentary “Surviving Mumbai,” director/co-screenwriter Anthony Maras did extensive research, including interviews with many of the survivors, to tell the story of the sacrifice, courage, and resilience of the helpers.

The Taj is a legendary hotel, “home to statesmen and celebrities for over a century.” It was opened by a wealthy Indian who was not allowed to stay in one of the British-run hotels. It operates at the highest level of service. We see the preparations for the arrival of a wealthy middle-Eastern woman named Zhara (Nazanin Boniadi) who is coming with her new American husband, David (Armie Hammer), their baby, and the nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Sally). Her rose-petal scented bath is heated to precisely 48 degrees celsius, just as she likes it. And he cautions the staff not to congratulate her on her wedding as it is a sensitive subject, since she was pregnant at the ceremony and her family does not approve. The slogan of the staff is “Guest is God.” Everything they do is for the comfort and enjoyment of the guests.

We see a staff member named Arjun (Dev Patel) adjust his Sikh turban precisely with a pin to make sure that each fold is perfectly aligned before leaving home. But when he gets to the hotel and puts on his impeccable uniform, he realizes that he does not have his shoes. Inspecting the staff before, chief chef Oberoi (Indian cinema star Anupam Kher) tells Arjun he is dismissed. He cannot appear before the guests in sandals, “looking like a beggar.” But then Oberoi relents, and tells Arjun he can wear Oberoi’s own shoes, which Arjun does, even though they are much too small.

Meanwhile, a group of terrorists from an extremist Islamic cult in Pakistan are arriving by boat, listening to a voice on their phones (all taken from real-life recordings from that day), telling them “You are calm…you are all like sons to me…I am with you…paradise awaits you.” Their backpacks are filled with guns and grenades, and their plan is to create chaos and terror at 12 different locations through Mumbai, which, as we will learn, has no special forces with the training or equipment to stop terrorist attacks.

Over the course of the film, three different characters make reassuring and completely dishonest phone calls to parents, telling them that despite what they see on television, everything is fine and they are safe. In another scene, a terrified hotel guest confronts another guest who has been speaking Farsi and says she is afraid of a staff member wearing a Sikh turban. The Sikh talks quietly to her, telling her that the turban is a symbol of honor, but he will remove it if it makes her more comfortable. He shows her a photograph of his family, reminding her of what all humans share, so she tells him to keep it on.

Everything terrible that happens in the film is caused by thinking of some people as “other.” The terrorists are led by a voice who constantly separates them from the rest of humanity. One of them kills a woman when told to by the voice in his ear, but when the voice tells him to reach into the dead woman’s bra to find her ID, he cannot. The voice says she was an infidel, so it doesn’t matter. But his faith is so essential to his identity that touching a woman’s breast is more forbidden than killing her. Throughout the story, as unthinkably horrific violence occurs, family keeps coming to the forefront as the essential connecting force.

Maras has a remarkable gift for a first-time director for giving us a sense of place. In the midst of chaos, we have a good idea of the various locations in the hotel and how they relate to each other. There is an action movie version of this movie where someone like Bruce Willis comes in and “Die Hards” it, but Maras keeps it soberingly, terrifyingly real, in part through tiny moments like the terrorists’ first look at a flush toilet (when they go into a bathroom to shoot an old lady), and when a hostage’s prayer shifts a shooter’s focus so that he is no longer able to make her an other, a moment of human connection that no amount of propaganda can cancel out. Maras wants us to see the helpers. But he wants this movie to help us be helpers ourselves.

Parents should know that this film includes horrific terrorism violence, though much of it is off-screen and not exploitively portrayed. Many characters are injured and killed and there are disturbing images. The film also includes some strong and bigoted language, alcohol, and sexual references and insults.

Family discussion: What do we learn from the three phone calls characters in the movie make to parents?  How did the characters determine what their loyalties were?

If you like this, try: “United 93” and the documentary “Surviving Mumbai”

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Wonder Park

Posted on March 14, 2019 at 5:09 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Serious illness of a parent, action/fantasy peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 15, 2019
Date Released to DVD: June 17, 2019

Copyright 2019 Nickelodeon
I’m pretty sure that the people behind Nickelodeon’s animated feature “Wonder Park” snuck a little love letter to their own childhood selves in this tribute to the power of imagination. They also bring the insight of their adult selves to the film’s most important insight: Not only do imagination and creativity enrich our lives and satisfy our souls; they are also vital for processing our most challenging moments. It is a welcome reminder for families raising the generation of children who will never remember a time when there wasn’t a screen to distract them within arm’s reach and the parents who check their social media when they stop for red lights. Plus it has the best song about math since Danny Kaye sang about the square of the hypotenuse in “Merry Andrew.”

June (Brianna Denski) and her mother (Jennifer Garner) love to spend time together imagining the details of a fabulous theme park called Wonderland. June has planned out all of the details, from the animal characters who welcome all the visitors to the merry-go-round with flying fish instead of horses. Like Christopher Robin, June has created a magic land for her toys, including genial Boomer the bear (Ken Hudson Campbell), who struggles with a hibernation-related form of narcolepsy, energetic beavers Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), nervous porcupine Steve (John Oliver), voice-of-reason wild boar Greta (Mila Kunis), and Peanut the chimpanzee (Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz, who translates June’s plans into the park’s attractions. June does more than imagine — she builds a scale model of the park that extends through the house. And she builds a go-kart with her best friend, Banky (Oev Michael Urbas) that works very well except for the steering and the brakes, which leads to quite a wild ride through the neighborhood.

June gets into trouble for that, but there is something much more devastating ahead — her adored mother is very sick, and must leave home for some special treatment. June’s entire sense of the world is turned upside down. She destroys her model of the Wonderworld. And, as people often do when they cannot handle uncertainty in one part of their life, she becomes fixated on what she can control, trying to take care of her father by worrying much too much. The milk in the fridge is just three days from its expiration date! Better get rid of it!

On the bus to math camp, June decides it is too much of a risk to leave her father alone, so she gets Banky to pretend to be sick and sneaks out to walk home through a forest. She discovers a version of the very Wonderland she designed, but it is under siege by tiny little zombie creatures (but cute ones, not super-scary). Only she can save the day.

It is too bad that the character design is bland as written and visualized, despite the best efforts of the talented voice performers. There are unaccountable and annoying detours into crushes — Banky’s on June and Steve’s on Greta. But the Wonderland is indeed wonderful and the message of imagination as a sustaining source of comfort and a path to understanding is wonderful as well.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy-style peril and action violence and serious illness of a parent, some schoolyard language, and some childhood and animal character crushes and a kiss.

Family discussion: Why did Peanut hide out? What kind of amusement park ride would you like to create? How do you keep the light inside you shining?

If you like this, try: “Inside Out” and “Surf’s Up”

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Captain Marvel

Posted on March 7, 2019 at 5:55 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language
Profanity: Some brief language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero violence and peril, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 8, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 28, 2019

Copyright 2019 Disney
I often say that superhero movies depend on the quality of the villain. A small amendment — sometimes it depends on a cat. And the cat in this movie, named Goose for reasons we will discuss later, is a delight in this very entertaining Marvel film, making way for the upcoming “Avengers: Endgame” and for the first time giving a female superhero a starring role.

Oscar-winner Brie Larson plays Captain Marvel, though that is not her title in the film. She does not have a rank or a superhero name. In fact, she is not sure what her actual name is. The Captain Marvel character has appeared in different forms in comic books over the years, mostly male. So even the most deeply committed fanboys and fangirls may not come to this film with a detailed backstory in mind, though fans of the comics will have some quibbles with this adaptation anyway. We meet this character as she meets herself. At first, she is known as Vers, a member of an elite fighting force of a race called the Kree, with a sensei/mentor/commanding officer named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who trades avuncular quips and punches with her in training sessions.

The Kree are lead by a God-like entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who is to complex to be comprehended in its true form. So it appears to each person (if I can call the Kree “persons” since they appear human) in whatever form is most meaningful to him or her. To Vers, the Supreme Intelligence appears as Annette Bening in a leather jacket, as it might to any of us, when you come to think of it.

The mortal enemies of the Kree are the Skrull, a lizard-like race with the ability to shape-shift so that they are indistinguishable from any living being, down to the DNA. Their leader is played by Ben Mendelsohn, for once using his real-life Aussie accent, a great choice for a character who is not the usual super-villain. Speaking of which, the usual super-villain, Ronan (Lee Pace) does make an appearance.

When the Kree are ambushed by the Skrull, Vers escapes to another planet, which turns out to be Earth in 1995. Her rocket crashes into a Blockbuster video store, which makes sense because there was one on just about every corner back then.

And you know who was also around back then? A young Nick Fury and Agent Colson played by digitally airbrushed Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg. Fury has a full head of hair and two working eyes. He does not believe that the young woman described by a witness as “dressed for laser tag” is from another planet. What she is wearing is her Kree military jumpsuit, until she lifts a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and some ripped jeans from a mannequin.

Soon Vers and Fury (he says even his mother calls him “Fury”) are on the road, trying to get the whatsit to keep it away from the whosit (avoiding spoilers here), picking up Goose the cat along the way, as Vers begins to remember the life she once had on Earth, a military pilot named Carol Danvers, with a mentor who turns out to be…a scientist/engineer played by Annette Bening. Carol also had a difficult childhood (played as a young girl by the gifted Mckenna Grace) and a devoted friend, a single mother who was also a pilot (Lashana Lynch, both tough and warm-hearted as Maria Rambeau).

Carol’s name-tag broke in the accident that wiped out her memory. The Kree only saw the half that read “Vers,” which they used as her new name, because apparently the Kree can read the English language alphabet, but that’s okay because they can also breathe our air and look like humans, so just go with it. When she begins to literally put the pieces together, she begins to tap into her real power, not just the ability to shoot super-powerful photon beams out of her fists, but her determination, courage, and integrity.

Carol and Maria have a real need for speed “Top Gun” need-for-speed vibe, which explains the cat’s name, a tribute to the Anthony Edwards character in the film. And Carol’s grunge look and riot grrrl outlook fit in well with the 90’s references in the film, the songs on the soundtrack, of course, but also the technology that feels like it is from the era of the Flintstones, like dial-up modems, the Alta Vista search engine, and pagers.

Larson is fine, especially in her easy banter with Jackson, but the character is a bit bland. In one of the movie’s climactic moments, the question of exactly what her powers are and who controls them is fluffed in a way that removes some of the dramatic tension. But the movie has a couple of clever twists that keeps it involving, with some pointed but never pushy references to refugees and how we learn who to trust as we learn who we are. Props to Marvel, though, for not giving us a love story, as it would just be a distraction. Plus, we get to discover why the Fury of our era wears an eye-patch and Jackson gives one of his most natural and charming performances ever, making Goose a close second as the film’s most appealing character.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Translation: Extended comic book/fantasy action, peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, crashes, brief sexual reference, reference to unhappy childhood, betrayal

Family discussion: What would Supreme Intelligence look like to you? How did Carol decide who to trust?

If you like this try: the Avengers movies, including “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier”

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Cold Pursuit

Posted on February 7, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, drug material, and some language including sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended criminal peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 8, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 13, 2019

The setting of “Cold Pursuit” is white, not just the endless expanses of deep snow in the (fictional) ski resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. A frozen whiteness shimmers throughout the film, but the grim humor of the story is very, very dark.

Copyright 2019 Summit Entertainment

Liam Neeson has been reliably providing us with annual winter action movies for more than a decade, starting with the “very special set of skills” rescue thriller Taken” in 2008. In that he was the father of a kidnapped daughter. This time, in a remake of the similarly snowy Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, also directed by Hans Petter Moland, Neeson is the father of a murdered son.

He plays Nels Coxman (intentional — the Norwegian character’s name was Dickman), a snowplow driver who is about to be honored as the local community’s citizen of the year as the movie begins. He is a simple, straightforward man a bit disconcerted by the attention. When his wife (a criminally underused Laura Dern) gently reminds him that he will have to say a few words when he accepts the honor, all he can muster is, “I’m just a guy who keeps a strip of civilization open.” A man who has spent his entire clearing snow from one road recognizes the inevitably conflicted feelings about the road not taken, but is comfortable with the notion that “I picked a good road early and stayed on it.”

And then Nels and his wife are in the morgue identifying the body of their son, dead from a heroin overdose.” “Our son was not a druggie,” Nels says to the coroner. “That’s what all the parents say,” is the response. We have seen what happened and we know it was murder. We are here to watch Nels prove it, which happens quickly, and then to watch him avenge it, which takes some time. It isn’t enough for him to kill the men responsible. He has to go after everyone up the chain of command.

At the top of the chain of command is a brutal, arrogant man known as Viking (Tom Bateman), who gives his young son a copy of Lord of the Flies (“All the answers you will ever need”) and tells him he should have tried to fight the school bully. “A bully is a chance to prove your mettle.” The boy is not interested in fighting, or in the very restricted diet (no sugar, no junk food) his father insists on. Even the thugs on his father’s payroll take pity on him and slip him a few snacks.

As Nels knocks off one of Viking’s colorfully nicknamed henchmen after another, tombstone-like title cards appear to help us keep up. Because no one suspects an outsider, suspicion falls on Viking’s current and former colleagues, leading to many complications and much more killing. Soon there is another father seeking revenge. While the senior cop has no interest in anything but keeping the tourists happy, the rookie (Emmy Rossum) wants “to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys.” And catch some bad guys, too.

The film is visually striking, the whiteness of the snow in the mountains echoed in the fur decor of a fancy ski resort, the merchandise in a bridal wear shop, the sterility of the morgue, with its agonizing cranking up of the drawer where the body is lying. The archness keeps us far enough away from the carnage to be amusing until there is so much of it we just get numb.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with crime-related peril and violence, attempted suicide, shoot-outs, and disturbing and grisly images. The main character is essentially a serial killer, and the film includes drugs and drug dealing, sexual references, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What were the unintended consequences of Nels’ actions and how did he respond to them? How does this movie from most other action films?

If you like this, try: “Taken” and “Run All Night”

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