Lightyear

Posted on June 16, 2022 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi peril and cartoon-style violence, sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 12, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
Watch carefully in Lightyear for a moment just for those kids born in in the 80s who were the first digital natives. A cartridge inserted into a computer deck is not working correctly, and Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans taking over from Tim Allen) has to fix it. What does he do? Say it with me, people in their 30s: He blows on the exposed tape side and re-inserts it. Now, that may not have worked in real life, but thankfully, it works for Buzz.

This kind of detail is what we expect from Pixar, along with superbly crafted films that make us laugh, gasp, and cry. We’re reminded at the beginning of “Lightyear” that in 1995 Andy was given a Buzz Lightyear toy from his favorite movie. And then we’re told that this, what we ae about to see, is that movie. It doesn’t need to overdo the 90s references, but once in a while, like the blowing on the cartridge, we get a reminder that the lovable nerds at Pixar know us all too well.

This is not the toy Buzz Lightyear who has some existential confusion and thinks he is the actual character. This is the actual character, a lantern-jawed space ranger, the All-American boy next door type, brave, loyal, extremely good at his job, and stubbornly independent. His closest friend is fellow Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba). But he does not work well with others, especially rookies.

Buzz and Alisha are on a long-term space journey. They stop to investigate an uncharted planet and, as anyone who has ever clocked a red shit on “Star Trek” knows, it turns out to be much more treacherous than they expected (though, thankfully, to have breathable air). As they are on their way back to “the turnip,” which is what they call their rocket due to its shape, the rocket is so badly damaged they are stuck. All of the 1200 passengers who have been in suspended animation will have to be awakened to find that they are marooned, with no way to return to the mission or go home.

Buzz is determined to save the day. He undertakes a very dangerous test flight. For him, it is four minutes. But, due to the difference between time on a planet and time in space, he returns to find that four years have passed for Alicia and everyone else. Things have changed. The space travelers have built a community. Alicia is engaged to a scientist. People have adapted. Buzz feels responsible for getting them stuck and he is determined to keep trying until he gets the necessary mix of elements to give the rocket the fuel it needs. But each test run means another four years. He comes back and Alecia and her wife are expecting a child. He comes back again and the child is four years old. His life is passing in minutes and his friend’s is passing in years, in decades.

Other than Alicia, Buzz’s only companion is a robot cat. Think a combination of R2D2, C-3Po, and Captain Marvel’s Flerken. Ultimately he will find a group of people who do not have the training, discipline, or skills Buzz has always relied on in his missions. All of the difficulty he has had in relying on others is multiplied just as it has become necessary to trust them.

The reveal near the end did not work as well for me, but I especially liked the way it deals with two issues we don’t often see in movies for children, how to move on after making a mistake, learning to see the best in people, and learning to rely on others. As always with Pixar, the movie is filled with endearing characters and witty and telling details, brilliantly designed settings, sublime silliness, and exciting action scenes and yes, you will cry. It is easy to understand why this was Andy’s favorite movie.

Parents should know that this film has extended sci-fi peril and violence with scary robots and sci-fi weapons. There is a very sad death. A devoted gay couple is portrayed in an admirably matter-of-fact, low-key manner with grace and dignity.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Buzz to accept help? What is the best way to make up for mistakes?

If you like this, try: The “Toy Story” movies, “Galaxy Quest,” and the old Flash Gordon serials.

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The Phantom of the Open

Posted on June 9, 2022 at 5:45 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and smoking
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Class issues are a theme in the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 3, 2022
Date Released to DVD: August 30, 2022

Copyright Entertainment One 2022
I’m going to appropriate a term used for the mystery novels set in England where everyone sits down for tea with the vicar to discuss the latest clues — “cozies” — and use it for the Britain-set stories of irresistibly pixie-ish charm. And within that genre is a sub-genre that, to an American, seems quintessentially British. We all love our heroes, our risk-takers who succeed. But the understated British also love the goofy ones who pursue silly goals and sometimes fail spectacularly and do not seem to be bothered by it. Take “Eddie the Eagle,” for example, the Taron Edgerton film about the Olympic athlete who came in last in his event in the 1988 Olympics. Or those like Tim FitzHigham who rowed a bathtub across the English Channel. “The Phantom of the Open” is about a crane operator who decided to compete in the world’s oldest and most prestigious golfing competition, the British Open despite, among other drawbacks, never having actually played a round of golf. It is based on the real-life story of Maurice Flitcroft.

Mark Rylance, who also co-produced, pays Maurice, who was born in a small town where everyone works in the shipyard. During WWII he was evacuated to Scotland, where for the first time he saw other possibilities and was encouraged to discover and pursue his own dreams. He ended up back home and working at the shipyard, though. And he fell in love with a secretary there (Sally Hawkins as Jean), a single mother. They had twins and then everything pretty much stayed the same as the three boys grew up.

And then the political and economic changes led to “redundancies” (lay-offs) and for the first time Maurice had a chance to think about what dreams he might have. That was so far from his experience he first had to ask Jean to think of some. But then, one night, watching his first-ever television, he saw a golf match and a dream was born.

The British Open, as its name suggests, did not require any particular level of achievement or qualification, but the people who ran it just assumed that only world-class golfers would try to participate. Maurice avoided having to disclose his handicap (he had no idea what that was) by self-certifying as a professional, and that was all it took. And so, he found himself competing as the astonished onlookers, including the other golfers and the television audience, saw him, well, let’s just say the record he set was not for the lowest score.

This is a part made for Rylance, who is ideally suited to a character who may not be as naive as he appears. Director Craig Roberts gives the story a fairy tale quality, seeing Maurice as an innocent wandering through the big bad world and outsmarting those who live by traditional notions of class, power, and achievement, all to the bright and bouncy soundtrack of 70’s hits. Maurice is deferential and courteous but he is also unstoppable. Some people call his Quixotic efforts to play in the Open pranks or hoaxes. This movie comes down on the side of considering him a lovable eccentric. And it delivers with a heartwarming conclusion that — especially if you don’t follow the movie with a further investigation into the facts — might inspire you to dream a little bigger yourself.

Parents should know that this movie has some strong language, smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: Why do some people think of Maurice as a “legend?” Why was that his dream?

If you like this, try: “Eddie the Eagle” and clips of the real Maurice on YouTube

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Downton Abbey: A New Era

Posted on May 19, 2022 at 5:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some suggestive references, language and thematic elements.
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 20, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 4, 2022

Copyright Focus Features 2022
If the producers of “Downton Abbey” have become so fond of their characters after six seasons on television and a feature film that they can reunite them only for the most enticingly charming of storylines, well, that is fine with me and likely to be fine with the many, many fans who love to watch the residents of the fabulous title estate — both the upstairs Lord and Lady Grantham and their family (the Crowleys) and the downstairs staff who keep the place running. The title is “Downton Abbey: A New Era” but the story remains reassuringly retro.

The Crawley characters have survived the upheavals of world affairs from the beginning; the first episode begins with the family learning of the sinking of the Titanic, with the heir to the estate on board and later World War I brings enormous changes during the course of the series. And they have survived family upheavals as well, the marriage of one of the three Crawley daughters to a commoner, the family’s chauffeur, and her death following childbirth. The staff have had their challenges as well, and the attention to all of the residents of Downton is a critical part of the story’s appeal.

But so is the display of wealth, including the dozens of servants required for the many many changes of fabulous clothes and the dinners with exquisite china and silver. For all of the concerns about whether the Crawley family can afford repairs to the roof, they have generational wealth and privilege that has a fairy tale quality. “Cinderella” is a fairy tale, too, and the concerns, challenges, and relationships of the staff, all safely in the past, allow a measure of safety as we convince ourselves that there is more opportunity and equality today.

This latest update may be called “A New Era” but it is even more of an old-fashioned fairy tale than the last one because of the gentleness of its storylines. It begins with a wedding. The last movie ended with a strong suggestion that the family connections would be shored up further when the chauffeur-turned-son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) was falling in love with Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), the illegitimate daughter of an estranged cousin, Maude Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). This made the Crowleys happy because it would keep the property Lucy was inheriting from Maude connected to the Crawley family. Oh, and it would be nice for single dad Tom to find love, too.

And then the very large cast splits and goes in two different directions Dame Maggie Smith as the acid-tongued doyenne Violet Grantham has unexpectedly inherited a villa in the French Rivera from a man she knew when she was a young newlywed. His widow is considering challenging the will but his son has invited the Crowleys to visit.

Lady Mary, who is running things at Downton now, as accepted a lucrative offer from a film crew that wants to use Downton to make a movie about a high society romance. Well, they had to top the last film’s visit from the king and queen. Downton, as often happens, is caught between two traditions: the traditions of dignity, decorum, status, and remove from the activities of those without a title, and the tradition of keeping the roof from leaking and continuing to care for the family and the servants and as much of the way of life as they can continue to sustain.

Both stories take turns that range from melodramatic to preposterous, the film-within-a-film story landing somewhere between an early 20th century meta-verse and an audacious twist taken from one of the all-time-most beloved movies in history. But after all this time, the audience is not there for the plots. This is a film that has time for a full, rollicking jazz performance. We are there for the elegance and glamor, the costumes, the comfy familiarity. If you are not already a fan, this is not a place to start. But if you’re hoping for happy endings for almost every character — and if you are enough of a fan to know that when a member of the nobility and a servant are mistakenly thought to be a married couple that it is both a wink (the actors are married in real life) and a nod to the themes of changing times (like the jazz number and the movie production) and eroding class distinctions, then you will be as delighted as I was.

Parents should know that this film includes discussions of adultery and paternity and a sad death.

Family discussion: Which character do you enjoy the most and why? Were you surprised by the decisions made by Violet and Lady Mary?

If you like this, try: the “Downton Abbey” series and the other series from Julian Fellowes, including “Doctor Thorne,” “The Gilded Age,” and “Belgravia”

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Top Gun: Maverick

Posted on May 16, 2022 at 8:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and some strong languag
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extended intense military peril and action
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2022
Date Released to DVD: November 1, 2022

Copyright 2022 Paramount
I’m happy to report that “Top Gun: Maverick” is everything a fan could hope for. It is exciting, it is endearing, it just about blows kisses at the fans, and it is guaranteed to make many new ones. You want to start right off with Kenny Loggins singing about the danger zone! You’ve got it. You want hot guys with their shirts off playing some sort of ball game on the beach! Happy to provide. You want to see Tom Cruise on his motorcycle? There it is. (No helmet though, not too happy about that.) You want to see him run very fast? Well, sorry about that. JK it’s a Tom Cruise movie, of course he is going to run and no one runs like Tom Cruise runs. You want to see some very cool and intense action in the sky, shot with lenses specifically developed for this movie? Of course you will. You want to see complex characters and believable plot lines? Oh, come on, no you don’t!

Maverick (Tom Cruise) is still the same break-the-rules hotshot he was 36 years ago. We see him working on his old plane as we hear Kenny Loggins sing. And once again (there will be a lot of “once agains” in this movie) he is in trouble for taking risks and ignoring orders. Just as before, over the objections of his commanding officer (a brief appearance by Ed Harris), he is being sent to Top Gun, the San Diego-based training facility for elite Navy fliers. He has a friend and protector fans of the original film will be glad to see again, Val Kilmer as Iceman, now an admiral.

Maverick is needed to train the best of the best of the best for an impossible real-life mission, taking out a nuclear weapons facility in the Mideast before the arrival of uranium in three weeks, when bombs would release radiation. Instead of describing the “two miracles” necessary for blowing up the construction site, I will refer you to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” because it is pretty much the same thing. I half expected one of the pilots to say, “I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home.”

The best of the best of the best have skills, but as we’ve seen, they also have a lot of ego, a lot of adrenaline, and a lot of hyper-competitive posturing. Just to make this throwback even throwback-ier, there’s a special blast from the past. Many movies have what is called a DBTA, which stands for Dead by Third Act, a character whose only role in the story is to give the main character a death to mourn and learn from. So it has to be someone we in the audience connect to as well. Goose in “Top Gun” is the quintessential DBTA. As soon as he plays “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano with his wife (Meg Ryan) and toddler son, we know he is too adorable to make it to the end of the story. That toddler son is now one of the best of the best of the best, call sign Rooster (Miles Teller), and he has a huge amount of resentment toward Maverick.

If Rooster is the new Maverick, impulsive and abrupt, then the new Iceman is the terrific Glen Powell as Hangman, careful and by the book. Maverick has to prepare the young pilots for the impossible mission while his exasperated immediate superior officer (Jon Hamm) does his best to get in the way.

The original film had a reference to some trouble Maverick got into with an admiral’s daughter named Penny. She shows up in this film as a single mom who owns the local bar and is played by Jennifer Connelly with grace and wit.

Speaking of “Star Wars,” there is also a Yoda-esque theme with Maverick stressing the importance of intuition and the human being more important than the gizmos, even a touch of the old fable of John Henry being faster than the machine. And some of the plot developments in the last half hour are near-ridiculous. That is less important than what works in the film, outstanding cinematography, editing, action, romance, terrific performances from a collection of young performers, and of course full-on movie star Tom Cruise, clearly having a blast.

Parents should know that this film has intense military action with dogfights and bombs. Characters drink and use strong language and there are sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: If you were Penny, what rules would you adopt in the bar? Are you more like Hangman or Rooster?

If you like this, try: “Top Gun” and the “Mission: Impossible” movies and check out these thoughts on the movie from an air combat expert

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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:27 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening images, action, intense sequences of violence, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language, s-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugged drinks
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, scary monsters, zombie, disturbing and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 6, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
The year of the multi-verses continues with the latest Marvel entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by master of horror Sam Raimi (and with a special cameo by Raimi’s favorite actor, Bruce Campbell). As the MCU continues to evolve and expand, this movie builds not just on all of the Marvel movies that have come before. There are references to Thanos turning half the population to dust and to the most recent Spider-Man movie (where Strange played a key role). It also helps a lot to have seen the television series “Wandavision,” with Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, a sometime Avenger with, even by Avenger standards, extraordinary powers. She can create almost anything and in that series, her response to the tragic loss of her love, Vision, was to create an entire world, in part inspired by the videos of American television series she saw as a child in fictional Communist Bloc country Sokovia, where she and Vision lived in sit-com suburbia.

It begins in medias res, a battle with a very big monster who seems to be made of electrified spaghetti. There is a teenage girl and a choice, something that would destroy her but save the world, at least until the next monster. Doctor Strange, the famously hyper-rational, often arrogant surgeon-turned sorcerer with the greying temples and magical cloak, has to decide. What will he do? What should he do?

He makes a choice and then he wakes up. It was a dream. Or maybe it was not. He will learn that it was a peak into the multiverse, the parallel versions of our world we got a glimpse of in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when two other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) and a handful of their villains joined together in our world. There is a way to physically enter the other verses and there is a way to “dream-walk,” to inhabit another verse’s version of you and substitute your thoughts and emotions. And that teenager, America Chavez (a terrifically natural Xochitl Gomez of “The Babysitter’s Club”) shows up with the key to some of that verse-hopping.

Strange seeks out Wanda to ask for her help. They walk through her peaceful grove of apple blossoms and he tells her they smell “real.” She assures him they are, that she is done with world-building. The meaning of “real” is a theme of the film as the different versions of the characters in the multi-verses present different ideas of reality, including free food and a verse where everyone is paint, plus some surprising switches in roles, personalities, hair color and style (Strange with a ponytail?), and destinies. And there are monsters, including a very cool one that looks like a gigantic corrugated octopus with a head that’s one enormous eyeball, like a spider-y band member from The Residents.

That’s as spoiler-y as I want to get. So I will stick to some general comments. Cumberbatch makes Strange vivid, layered, even a little bit vulnerable, and the interactions with the woman he loves, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and America have a nice symmetry that helps us see Strange work through his options, both for fighting the villain and for moving forward in his own life. The visual design is wonderfully imaginative, each verse filled with enthralling details. The action scenes are well staged, Raimi brings a tingly horror twinge to the mood, and Danny Elfman’s music is everything you want a superhero soundtrack to be. It feels good to be back in the IMAX MCU.

What keeps it under the level of the best of these films, though, is what has been an increasing issue in superhero movies. The powers are not clearly defined, so the stakes are not clearly defined. It is not enough to say it’s about the fate of the world or even the fate of America (the person, though of course the country, too). It feels like too many times that we’ve been told that someone has ultimate power, and then someone comes along with more ultimate power. (I did think it was very funny when we saw the Infinity Stones carelessly tossed into a low-level bureaucrat’s desk drawer in the “Loki” series.) I’m not saying every superhero has to be Superman, with his abilities and vulnerability clearly defined. But this film’s search for two artifacts as the keys to resolving the conflict are a distraction from the level of mythic existential conflict this movie tries for. It is a particularly weak moment when Strange, whose power comes from intensive training, resorts to the old “just figure out how to use your power in the next nano-second.” The special effects are state-of-the-art but there’s only so much they can do with characters who just shoot electricity at each other.

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

Parents should know that this is at the upper edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (s-words) and extensive comic book/fantasy peril and violence with some disturbing and graphic images, including a disintegrating zombie. Characters are drugged.

Family discussion: Is it ever right to sacrifice one person to save many? (Look up “The Trolly Problem.”) What does it mean to always want to be the one holding the knife?

If you like this, try: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “Another Earth”

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