The Star

Posted on November 14, 2017 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 6, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony Pictures Animation
Sometimes a little part of a big story helps us see the big story more clearly. And so in “The Star,” we get to witness the Nativity through the eyes of a little donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun), and the friends he meets along the way as he helps Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi) on the way to Bethlehem.

Bo is stuck going around in circles in Nazareth — literally — yoked to a miller’s grinding wheel, his only view the rear end of the old-timer donkey in front of him (Kris Kristofferson). Through the window of the mill he glimpses the big world outside, and he dreams of doing something important, with a lot of pomp and splendor, and wants to escape so he can join the caravan of the king. Bo finally does escape, with some help from his best friend, a dove named Dave (Keegan-Michael Key). He hides out with the newlywed Mary, who welcomes him kindly and treats his injured leg, and then he ends up going with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, shepherds are watching the star, King Herod (Christopher Plummer) is sending a formidable soldier with two attack dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) to find the baby and make sure nobody threatens his right to the throne.

First-time feature director Timothy Reckart brings a background in stop-motion animation to give the look of this film exceptional depth and texture. The action and chase scenes as Bo tries to keep away first from the miller and later from Herod’s soldier show an astute appreciation for physical space and a real gift for making the most of it. The movie’s visual panache is enhanced by delightful voice talent from a widely diverse cast, including the camels of the three kings, voiced by Tyler Perry, Tracey Morgan, and Oprah Winfrey, Kristin Chenoweth as an excitable rodent, and “Saturday Night Live’s” Aidy Bryant as Ruth, a warm-hearted sheep who strays from her flock to follow the star. The stand-out is Key, whose high spirits show us that Dave the dove can be funny but most of all, he is a true friend.

Reckart also handles the tone very well, shifting seamlessly from gentle comedy to PG-friendly action without ever being disrespectful of or neglecting the movie’s main themes. The focus may be on Bo, but it is his experiences with Mary and Joseph that transform him.

Parents should know that this movie includes some peril and violence, brief potty humor, and reference to the virgin birth and pregnancy.

Family discussion: What did Bo learn about being important? Why didn’t Ruth stay with the flock?

If you like this, try: “Prince of Egypt”

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Animation Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies Talking animals

Last Flag Flying

Posted on November 9, 2017 at 9:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse, smoking, references to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of military service in wartime, sad deaths offscreen
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 29, 2018
Copyright 2017 Amazon Studios

Three of the best actors in the world give immense depth and humanity to characters who might so easily have been caricatures in “Last Flag Flying,” about three veterans on a sad personal mission. It’s got a backstory that might be worth a movie of its own. “The Last Detail,” based on the book by Darryl Ponicsan, starred Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as Marines ordered to escort a naive teenaged sailor (Randy Quaid) to serve an eight-year prison sentence for a trivial offense. It was a critical and commercial success due to Nicholson’s performance and a picaresque tone that suited the era. 4 years later, another Ponicsan book about three military men (now long retired from service) on a sad journey with some comic detours comes to the screen, directed by Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”). It is not a sequel, though some of the characters have the same names and some similar histories.

It is 2003. A man carrying a manilla envelope walks into a dodgy little dive bar and orders a beer. The bartender barely glances at him, in the midst of a one-sided conversation with the bar’s only other customer, a regular. “You don’t remember me, do you?” asks the man with the envelope. The bartender, who is also the owner of the bar, takes a good look. “Doc!” he crows. “No one has called me that in years.” Doc is Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) and the man behind the bar is Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). They eat pizza, talk about old times, and fall asleep in a booth. The next day, Larry takes Sal to a church, where the Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is conducting services. The men have not seen each other in decades, but they served together in Vietnam, Nealon and Mueller in the Marines and Shepherd in the Navy.

Mueller is not especially happy to see friends from the days when he was known as Mueller the Mauler, but he invites them to dinner at his home with his wife, Ruth (a splendid Deanna Reed-Foster, warm and wise). It is there that Shepherd explains why he wanted to find them. His son has been killed in action and he wants Mueller and Nealon to accompany him to the funeral. Nealon goes because he wants to do something different. Mueller goes, reluctantly, because he wants to be of service. “They represent a dark period in my life,” he tells Ruth, “a very dark period.” “And you represent God,” she replies.

And so the odyssey begins, with many adventures along the way, and, as Linklater does so well (the “Before” trilogy, “Waking Life”), many wide-ranging conversations, here including discussions of the past and present, the newish technology of the cell phone, sex, sleep, race, order, chaos, war, lies, choices, and consequences. Accompanying them for part of the trip is a Marine who was a close friend of Shepherd’s son (J. Quinton Johnson of “Everybody Wants Some!!!” excellent).

Near the end, Linklater gives us two scenes showing that what might have seemed episodic and slight was deliberate, thoughtful, and meaningful. It is his actors’ respect for the flawed characters they play and Linklater’s own respect for their choices, challenges, and regrets, that show us what we ask of the people who go to war on the other side of the planet because someone thought it would keep us safe, and what we owe them as well.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, drinking, smoking, references to drug abuse, references to wartime violence, and very crude sexual references including prostitution.

Family discussion: What should they have told Mrs. Hightower? Why did Larry want to bring his son home? Who would you call for a journey like that one?

If you like this, try: “The Last Detail” and “Taking Chance”

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Based on a book Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week movie review Movies War

Murder on the Orient Express

Posted on November 9, 2017 at 5:54 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Plot concerns a murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, racism is raised as an issue
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017

One of Agatha Christie’s most beloved mysteries has returned to the screen with another all-star remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” this time starring Sir Kenneth Branagh, who also directed, as the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It does not have the lush glamour of the 1974 original, directed by Sidney Lumet, and the tone is uneven, but the tricky puzzle is still fun to try to solve, for those who have not read the book or seen the earlier film, and the international cast makes it entertaining.

We first see Poirot in Jerusalem by the Wailing Wall, one of the most sacred locations in the world. It is before WWII and Israel is not yet a state. A priceless relic has been stolen and the suspects, as Poirot notes, are right out of the set-up for a joke: a rabbi, an imam, and a priest. Poirot neatly solves the crime and even more neatly blocks the culprit’s attempt to flee. He explains that he is what decades later would be called obsessive-compulsive, so aware of patterns that he becomes deeply distressed when they are not symmetrical. He even refuses to eat two boiled eggs because they don’t match. But what causes him enormous anxiety in life turns out to be ideal for solving crime. “The imperfections stand out,” he explains. “It makes most of life unbearable but it is useful in the detection of crime.”

When he says he is going to take a nice long train ride and relax with a book by Dickens, we know he will soon be solving another mystery.  As his friend, a handsome but louche train company official, says, a train combines three things: boredom, anonymity, and a gentle rocking motion, and that can lead to all kinds of fascinating possibilities.

Of course, in order to have a mystery, we have to have suspects and clues, so much of the film is taken up with introducing us to the cast of characters, a very international group, as one might expect on a train from Istanbul to Paris. It includes a friendly governess (“Star Wars'” Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham), a British doctor of African heritage (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot), a professor (Willem Dafoe), an elderly countess (Dame Judi Dench), an Italian-American car dealer (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a shy missionary (Penelope Cruz).

Some additions to the storyline are more distracting than illuminating. More seriously, they take away from our chance to get to know the very large cast of characters and that takes away from the sense of mystery and the stakes of the outcome.  Shifts in tone give the film a disquieting inconsistency and flashy camera moves, like an extended shot looking down at the characters’ heads, serve no purpose except to make us wonder what they are supposed to be doing.  Poirot is famously proud of his mustache, and so any depiction of the character must have some impressive facial hair.  Branagh’s is close to farcical, making us wonder whether it merited or required its own trailer on set. One thing we know about Christie and her famous creations — they always knew exactly where they wanted us to be. This movie does not.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references including prostitute, some racist comments, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Did Poirot make the right choice? What were the most important clues? What can you learn from him about observing significant details?

If you like this try: the original version with Albert Finney and other movies based on Agatha Christie stories like “Death on the Nile”

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Based on a book Crime DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies Mystery Remake

Thor: Ragnarock

Posted on November 2, 2017 at 10:14 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book fantasy peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 5, 2018

Copyright Disney 2017
New Zealand director Taika Waititi is exactly what Marvel/Disney needed, a true fanboy who loves superheroes because they are fun. Away with you, brooding and tortured comic book characters! What we want to see is a superhero who gets messed with, some colorful characters, a fascinatingly deranged villain, some thrilling action and slamming special effects, a surprise cameo, and, after a suitable series of setbacks, triumph. Plus some post-credit scenes. There’s all of that in this movie, plus some of the funniest moments on screen this year. It is irreverent, even cheeky. It has a sense of humor about itself while never, ever making fun of comic books or their fans.

Waititi, with a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, has taken one of the most serious of the Avengers, with only Chris Hemsworth’s imperishable charm keeping him just this side of wooden, and made use of his fellow antipodean’s true superpower, which is that he is a superb comic actor.

What does Thor have going for him? He has his dad, the king of the gods, Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), his home, Asgard, his strength, his hair, his divinity, his confidence, and his hammer. He loses most of that pretty quickly, and stripped down Thor suddenly becomes a much more relatable character, more deserving of our support because he actually seems to need it. You might even say down to earth, except that earth does not really come into it this time.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Thor begins. “Oh, no, Thor is in a cage.” He’s not talking to us, and finding out who he is telling his story to is the first hint we get that we are operating in a slightly cracked universe. But then, reassuringly, Thor does his Thor thing and gets himself out of a big mess with endless panache.

And then things go wrong. The Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) turns up to crush his hammer in her hands. She intends to take over Asgard and there does not seem to be anything he can do about it. He ends up on a planet that is essentially a junk pile, where he is discovered by scavengers. “Are you a fighter or are you food?” they ask him. Before they can gobble him up, he is captured by another scavenger (a terrific Tessa Thompson), who turns out to have a connection to Asgard. But she sells him to the Grandmaster (a glam Jeff Goldblum), who runs a lucrative gladiator show for galactic fans. Waiting to go to battle in the arena, Thor meets the movie’s most endearing character, a rock creature named Korg, played by Waititi himself. And then Thor sees his opponent in the battle to the death: his old Avenger buddy Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). We may love seeing the Avengers join together to take on the bad guys, but we love seeing them fight each other, too, and the Thor/Hulk fight is a smash. Literally.

Loki is there, too, I’m happy to say, and I only wish that someday he will have a movie of his own. Tom Hiddleston’s silky bad boy admits at one point that his loyalties shift moment to moment, and his mercurial impishness is perfectly calibrated. Despite her best efforts, Blanchett’s villain is not nearly as interesting as the other characters, and the resolution does not have the emotional weight that it does in the comics. But she barely diminishes the sheer fun of this film and I hope Marvel keeps Waititi on the roster for as many of these as he is willing to take on.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes!

Parents should know that this is a superhero movie with a lot of peril and action-style fantasy violence and some disturbing images, some alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What does Loki want? Which Avenger would you most like to be? What makes someone significant?

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Avengers movies

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3D Action/Adventure Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week movie review Movies Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel Superhero

A Bad Moms Christmas

Posted on November 2, 2017 at 6:00 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness, substance abuse humor, drinking to deal with stress, drinking as a bonding experience, drugs,
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Mild racism portrayed as humorous
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 5, 2018
Copyright 2017 STX

If you think these things are hilarious, then “A Bad Moms Christmas” is your movie:

1. A young child repeatedly saying the words that go with OMFG, which she explains she heard when her daddy and his girlfriend were yelling at each other in the bedroom, and the girlfriend punched through the wall and they did it seven times.

2. A character who works in a spa meets the man of her dreams when he asks her to wax his private parts, which he describes in detail, so he can participate in a “Sexy Santa” male stripper competition.

3. At the competition, one of the strippers is revealed to be overweight.

4. Three moms deal with holiday stress by getting drunk at the mall, grinding on Santa, and then stealing a Christmas tree decorated with sneakers from Footlocker.

5. A mother slams her teenage son in the crotch with a foam bat, just for fun.

6. An extended product placement for a trampoline-jumping party place.

I do not.

I didn’t like the first Bad Moms movie, either. Like the original, this is a slack and lazy script that pretends to be all “you go, girl” empowerment but in reality has contempt for its intended audience, clearly thinking we don’t know or won’t care that we are being insulted. The pressure women are under to be everything to everyone and the complicated relationships women have with their mothers and daughters is well worth exploring and well worth exploring via comedy. But the men who wrote this have no particular interest in exploring it. This is just a bunch of dumb scenes strung together with so few ideas that they have to throw in some truly excruciating product placement with an extended scene in a trampoline playground until it is blessedly time to go home. It is a real shame to waste the monumentally talented cast on this smug and silly story, including the criminally underused Jay Hernandez. It’s bad enough that his role in the film is “perfect boyfriend,” but the script inflicts some casual racism on him as well. A wealthy woman mistakes him for a bellhop, in the home of his girlfriend, not even a hotel! Oh, my aching sides!

Oh, and the trampoline playground people should get their money back because this movie makes it look like the most un-fun thing ever, except for maybe watching this movie.

In the first film, Amy, a harried newly single mother (Mila Kunis), Kiki, an overwhelmed stay at home mom (Kristen Bell), and Carla, a hard-partying pottymouth with a teenage son (Kathryn Hahn) join forces to oppose the impossible standards of perfection and the mean girl PTA President (Christina Applegate) who embodies them. In the sequel, they face two of any mother’s most high-pressure situations: Christmas and the arrival of their own mothers.

Amy’s mother is a demanding perfectionist who insists that the family attend the five-hour version of “The Nutcracker” in the original Russian and sing at 300 houses dressed as characters from “A Christmas Carol” (Amy as Scrooge) with a choir as back-up so they can win a caroling contest. Carla’s mother (Susan Sarandon) is a rock and roll party girl who calls herself Isis (“like the terrorist group,” she explains), constantly either high, “borrowing” money, scamming someone, or all three at once. And Kiki’s mother (Cheryl Hines) is somewhere between smothering, helicoptering, and Single White Female crazy stalking.

A bunch of random stuff and outrageous chaos happens before the heart-to-heart talks that belatedly sort everything out, including some sort of job interview that occurs late on Christmas eve for no other reason than that they want to tie things up and figure no one will notice, to say nothing of a complete personality change here and there. It isn’t that we expect realism from a broad comedy, but it is fair for us to expect that once we enter the movie’s world, its premises will remain consistent enough for us to enjoy the payoff. Instead, we get this, and a lump of coal in the stockings of all who were responsible.

Parents should know that this movie has extremely raunchy humor with many explicit and crude sexual references and some sexual situations and very strong language used by and in front of children. Characters drink and use drugs, and they drink to deal with stress and to bond with each other. There is comic violence and peril, but no one gets hurt, and there are conversations about death and divorce of parents and about poor parenting.

Family discussion: Who is responsible for the standards the moms felt they had to live up to? What should the moms have said to their mothers? Why didn’t they say it?

If you like this, try: “Bridesmaids”

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Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies Reviews Series/Sequel
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