Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 10, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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The Protege

Posted on August 19, 2021 at 1:20 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references, language, brief nudity, strong and bloody violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense peril and violence with many disturbing and gory images, guns, knives, fights, bombs, waterboarding and torture, characters injured and killed, attempted rape of a child
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 20, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 18, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
I do not expect narrative coherence from movies that fall into the category of don’t-pay-attention-to-the-plot-just-enjoy-the-action, just that they don’t distract the audience with too many “huh?” moments. “The Protege” teeters on the “huh” brink, with enough for three episodes of Pitch Meeting, the YouTube series hilariously dissecting movie plot holes. Plus, the intensity of the gore becomes another distraction from the reason we are all there, which is to marvel at the very impressive stunts and fight scenes.

The always-great Maggie Q plays the title character, taken in as a child by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s greatest paid assassin, after her family is killed. He cares for her like any loving parent who happens to be a paid assassin, supporting her passion for her bookstore specializing in rare and precious volumes, and teaching her how to take over the family business. She supports his passion for the finer things, too, including a birthday gift of an ultra-rare guitar he has always wanted, a Gibson ’58 Flying V. It’s just your typical loving father and daughter who happen to be, you know, paid assassins.

After we get a chance to see how good Anna is at her job, including “how to find things that don’t want to be found,” with the help of a friendly hacker who has an office behind a dry cleaner (just like “The Man From UNCLE!”). But even assassins may be vulnerable, and Moody has a bad cough and some very powerful enemies. He is killed, and Anna wants revenge. Say it with me, everyone: This time, it’s personal. There will be an old friend (the always-welcome Robert Patrick as a biker dude) who tries to persuade her that “You owe it to Maody to stay alive.” But Anna has to find out why Moody was killed and kill whoever was responsible.

There may be a connection to a customer who came to her bookstore. His name, improbably even in the context of a film that left probability behind about 3 minutes after the opening credits, is Rembrandt and he is played by Michael Keaton. In classic movie fashion, they flirt by knowing the same poem. Rembrandt is a fixer for a very bad guy with many minions. And unlike many fixers, he is not above getting messy. Are Rembrandt and Anna going to fight each other or have a more intimate tussle? What do you think?

It wants to be as stylish as “John Wick,” but it is not. Director Martin Campbell wants to replicate the sexy sword fight as romantic foreplay of “The Mask of Zorro,” but with these characters and this level of hand-to-hand combat, it does not work as intended. The mystery isn’t much of a mystery and you will not need a quirky hacker to figure it out. This is a good thing as he isn’t around for long. Let’s face it; this movie is just an excuse for a lot of action, from extended stunts to out-of-the-blue murders. For me, the gore and the weird vibe between Anna and Rembrandt were so extreme they took me out of the film; for some others that will be the point.

Parents should know that this is an extremely violent and gory movie with many characters injured and killed and many graphic and disturbing images. There are fights, explosions, guns, and knives, torture tactics, and a lot of gushing blood. Characters use strong language and there are sexual references, some nudity, and a non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Do you agree that it is a gift to have a friend who won’t offer help unless asked? How are Moody and Anna different from the people who hire them?

If you like this, try: “The Professional,” “Gunpowder Milkshake,” and “The Transporter”

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The Suicide Squad

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense and gory violence with many disturbing and bloody, graphic images, characters injured and killed, comic book violence, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers
Just to clarify: the 2016 film with Will Smith and Margot Robbie about the imprisoned DC Comics villains who are assembled into a “Dirty Dozen”-style team by a tyrannical official from a secret government agency is called “Suicide Squad.” This 2021 reboot is called “The Suicide Squad.” Got it?

“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” writer/director James Gunn takes over the franchise, and this is even more insouciantly nasty than the first one, relishing the carnage and ebulliently transgressive. Even the Warner Brothers logo is written in blood.

Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller, who demonstrates her ruthlessness up front by delivering on her threat to detonate a chip that explodes the head of one of her supervillains who disobeys an order. “I wouldn’t take such extreme measures if this mission wasn’t more important than you could possibly imagine,” she says. It is “potentially cataclysmic for America and the world.” In other words, the ends justify the ultra-destructive means, including giving her license to murder her charges, not to mention giving them license to murder as well.

There are some new characters this time, including some younger villains to make it possible to include some jokes about millennials, or stereotypes, depending on your perspective. This crowd is defined by their inability to play well with others, but that is intensified here by the animosity between two alpha males, the walking weapon Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and the walking heavy bag and ironically named Peacemaker (John Cena). Also on board for some or all of the mission are a shark with legs, a second-generation rat-master, a guy with some serious mother issues who emits lethal polka dots, and of course, in what she says is her last appearance in the role, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

We can understand why. For all its many failings, the first “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey” gave Harley Quinn what she has too seldom been given, an interesting character. She was damaged. And she was a villain. But a vestigial trace of her past life as a psychologist and a woman wronged gave her some complexity and even sympathy. She’s not as interesting here, more naughty than truly provocative. This movie is more interested in how many ways a human body can be exploded, beheaded, sliced down the middle, and otherwise dismembered than it is in anything else with the possible exception of a lot of macho posturing. It also fails to make the stakes meaningful with a worthy villain. Understandable, I suppose; it’s hard to out-villain the temporarily good bad guys. So, it’s is colorful and entertaining but lightweight and unmemorable.

NOTE: Stay for a mid-credit scene with an un-surprising surprise.

Parents should know that this movie ie extremely vulgar and gory with constant, extremely bloody peril and violence and many characters injured and killed. Characters use constant very strong language and the movie includes nudity and sexual references, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Suicide Squad comic books

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Nine Days

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:29 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Date Released to Theaters: July 30, 2021
Date Released to DVD: November 2, 2021

Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2021
One of the most loved passages in English literature is in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” when a young mother who has died in childbirth has returned from a brief visit back to her life on Earth. She sadly realizes that no one living can truly appreciate the true pleasures of life on earth. That is partly because we are too busy worrying about what other people think of us and how we can buy some thing or achieve some goal that might impress them or worrying that someone might be more successful to notice the true bounty and beauty all around us. “Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers,” she says. “And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” “No, Saints and poets maybe…they do some,” is the answer.

It is poets like Wilder who not only realize life, but help us to have moments of realizing it, too, and in “Nine Days,” first-time writer/director Edson Oda gives us an Emily-like reminder with a mystical allegory about souls who are applying for life on Earth. They are hoping to be deemed worthy so they can have a chance to not quite notice the clocks and the bread while they worry about all the things that people worry about. Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, both so striking in heightened featured roles in comic book movies (“Black Panther” and “Deadpool”) are never less than extraordinary here, with subtle, complex performances that tells everything not just about their characters but about the world they are in. They make the allegory real, human, and utterly compelling and their final scene will live in my heart always.

Production designer Dan Hermansen and costume designer Fernando Rodriguez provide a setting that is at once strange and familiar. A house in a remote setting has a retro feel. Duke plays Will, whose wire rim glasses, suspenders, bow tie, and sweater vests give him an old-school academic vibe. And he seems to be a scholar, carefully studying and archiving videotapes that are playing on a bank of screens. We see lives from the point of view of the person whose story is being told, only glimpsing their faces when they look into a mirror or are reflected in a window.

Hands reach into a crib to cuddle a baby. Birthday candles are blown out. School bullies insult a classmate. One of particular interest is a young woman who is a gifted violinist. Will is visited by a neighbor (Benedict Wong as Kyo). We get a sense that they are friends but there is a difference in their status and experience, and we learn more about that later. But not a lot more. This movie is comfortable with ambiguity, allowing us to fill in the spaces.

Kyo and Will are looking forward to something special. The young violinist is going to perform. But there is a tragic loss, and Will is shaken. Later, a woman knocks on his door. She seems to be there for some sort of job interview. And it becomes clear that she, and a small group of others, are there to interview for the job of — being born on earth, in comfortable, supportive circumstances. The candidates, who will have up to nine days to complete a series of tests, include characters played by Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, and Beetz, as the warmest and most curious of the group. As Will tells them, their senses are dulled. When they get the news they will not be accepted, they are given a chance to live one experience that is especially meaningful for them. It is similar to “After Life,” a Korean film given four stars by Roger Ebert, but in this case the experience they will have is borrowed from someone else’s life.

The setting and the details are fascinating and provocative, though anyone who has ever lived on earth could only wish there were some tests for judgment and morality before allowing a soul to be born. What makes the film so enthralling, though, are the rich, complex, sensitive performances that make each character real and and, yes, alive, and the questions you will ask yourself later about how you would respond to Will’s tests and what you can do to better appreciate the life we have.

Parents should know that this film deals with issues of life and death, and there is a suicide. Characters have intense experiences and some confrontations.

Family discussion: What do these tests determine? Why is the character named Will? What does his experience as a human bring to his job that Kyo cannot?

If you like this, try; “After Life,” “Defending Your Life,” and “Soul”

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Free Guy

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 12:05 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Language|Crude/Suggestive References|Strong Fantasy Violence)
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video-game violence with powerful real and fantasy weapons, guns, chases, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 12, 2021

Copyright 20th Century Studios 2021
In 1966, Tom Stoppard gave us “Hamlet” from the perspective of two of its most minor characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” a meditation on the impossibility of understanding the sometimes random, sometimes malicious forces of life, not as grim as it sounds. In “The Lion King 1 1/2,” Disney gave us the same story as the original “Lion King” but from the perspective of two of the main character’s sidekicks, the wart hog and the meerkat. The theme is basically building on a popular franchise, but it does expand on the story. In “Free Guy,” this idea goes further by giving a video game’s NPC (non-playable character) who is so generic his name is Guy (Ryan Reynolds) agency and that most human of gifts, the chance to grow and learn and love. Reynolds, who also produced, is never less than terrific here in a role ideally suited for his gifts. It’s easy to forget how subtle an actor he is, even in wild comedies like “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and larger than life roles like “Deadpool.” At each stage, from a one-note character barely more than some code and pixels to the first suggestions of mingled longing triumphing over fear, he calibrates with exquisite precision exactly where these nascent emotions and increasing confidence are progressing.

Guy is blissfully ignorant that his only purpose in the digital world of Free City is to hit the floor when the bank robbers, avatars of the real-world players, break in and start shooting. (Listen carefully to the robbers’ voices for some surprise appearances.) He wakes up so happy every morning we almost expect him to start singing “Everything is Awesome,” like Chris Pratt in “The LEGO Movie.” He is happy because he does not know there is another way to be. He gets up. He has some cereal and feeds his goldfish. He selects one of the identical blue button-down shirts and khaki slacks from his closet. He stops at a local cafe to get coffee. He goes to work as a bank teller, with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howrey), a security guard, and then the next group of robbers break in.

And then, one day, he sees The Girl (Jodie Comer of “Killing Eve”). She Molotov Girl, is the avatar for Millie, a gamer and programmer whose goal in the game is not racking up points, which players get from robbing and killing people. She is looking for proof that Antwan (Taika Waititi, having fun as a temperamental tyrant) the head of the computer game company cheekily called Soonami, stole the code she developed for a different game with Keys (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things,” very appealing), her former business partner. Keys now works for Soonami, with his friend and sometimes competitor Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

The avatars in the game, representing the real-life players, wear sunglasses. Guy puts on a pair and for the first time sees what the players see, a Pokemon Go-style assortment of goals and prizes and attributes. Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) has a lot of fun going back and forth between the world inside the game and the real world of Soonami, Keys, and Millie, plus some glimpses of the players behind their vastly more badass avatars. Gamers will find a lot of clever references to their world, especially the creation of a new character near the end who looks very familiar but is not fully programmed. And anyone who’s been to a blockbuster in the past few years will enjoy some surprise cameos. “Don’t have a good day; have a GREAT day.” This movie is smarter than it needs to be, and it is very satisfying to see Guy confront existential questions and discover, as lucky humans do, that it is love and helping others that makes life meaningful. It may start with as small a step as a Henley shirt or a cappuccino. All it takes is wanting more.

Parents should know that this film includes extended video-game action and violence with many real and fantasy weapons, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Which game would you prefer? What kind of game would you create?

If you like this, try: “Ready Player One,” “Jumanji” and “The LEGO Movie”

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