Low-key peril and violence, predators eat an egg and try to eat the penguins
Date Released to Theaters:
April 17, 2019
If there’s anything cuter than an Adelie penguin, it has to be a penguin voiced by Ed Helms (“The Office,” “The Hangover”). He provides the perfect slightly nerdy but always hopeful narration for the story of Steve, a young penguin on his first trek to find a mate, raise some chicks, and get them home.
As we know from “March of the Penguins,” it’s a long trek. Steve tells us it’s “a monumental expedition that favors the early bird and Steve is the last one to the party.” He gets lost on the way and ends up confusedly consulting some Emperor penguins, who smack him away. “I just got beat up by a baby,” he says dejectedly. It’s pretty disorienting even when he gets back to his own species. The millions of black and white birds look like that page in Where’s Waldo? that’s all Waldos.
We see Steve painstakingly collect stones to build a nest so he can tempt one of the female penguins, despite the efforts of the older penguins to steal them away. But Steve succeeds, and he does attract a female named Adeline. They tenderly sing to one another, memorizing each other’s voices, which they will recognize for as long as they live.
The film takes us through the year as Adeline lays her eggs, they hatch, and their penguin parents feed them (by barfing into their mouths, Steve explains). There are predators and other challenges, but there are also pop songs (REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight this Feeling Anymore”) and Steve’s bumbling but sincere devotion to Adeline, the chicks, and, well, life, is very touching.
Parents should know that this film includes a gentle depiction of some of the harsher aspects of nature and environmental challenges and a brief mild word.
Family discussion: How is Steve most like a human? Why did the other penguins want to steal Steve’s stones? What could he do to stop them?
If you like this, try: “Monkey Kingdom,” “Bears,” and “Born in China” and of course “March of the Penguins”
Peril, serious accident, critical medical condition
Theme of trans-racial adoption
Date Released to Theaters:
April 17, 2019
“Breakthrough,” a Christian faith-based story based on a teenager’s remarkable recovery after falling through the ice into a frozen river. It asks but does not pretend to try to answer the big question: If we believe that divine intervention saved this boy, then where is the divine intervention for so many tragedies? Why him? Why not little children and beloved family members? He was not especially good or devout. What does it mean?
The movie also makes it clear that a very large community contributed to the boy’s recovery. Whether they were divinely inspired or not, they played an essential role. Nevertheless, this movie, the last to be issued from the now-Disney-owned Fox division producing Christian faith-based films, is preaching to the choir. It is likely to deliver what they are looking for, but it is unlikely to reach a broader audience as entertainment or as testimony. Even with a strong cast and a dramatic rescue, this movie is not created for or intended for those who are not already on board with the idea of a very devout family experiencing a miracle. Those who are will find this a touching, inspiring story well told and well performed.
Joyce and Brian Smith (“This is Us” star Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas) live in a comfortable suburban home with their teenage son John (Marcel Ruiz), a student at the local Christian private school and star of the school’s basketball team. He is starting to have some teenage broodiness, beginning to deal with being adopted. He loves his parents but feels the loss of the people he never knew who gave him up. When his teacher assigns an oral report on family history, he does not even try.
And then one day he and two of his friends decide to play tag on a frozen river. The ice cracks, and they fall through. Agonizing minutes tick by as rescue workers try to grab John, who has sunk unto the water. Tommy Shine (Mike Colter of “Girls Trip” and “Luke Cage”) hears someone say, “Go back.” Later, no one who was present will say that he said or even heard those words.
John is trapped for 15 minutes and, once he is at the hospital, has no pulse for nearly half an hour. All the medical indicators are that he is past hope. But his mother insists he will come back, and she prays “boldly” — something she had just recently said she was not sure she understood in a Bible study group.
Joyce has some lessons to learn. She has been prideful and judgmental. She has not been careful about her own health and that makes it harder for her to help her family. But Jason (Topher Grace), the new preacher she dismissed as too secular (he brings in a Christian rock band and wears jeans on the pulpit when he uses “The Bachelor” as a kind of parable) turns out to be a true minister. He tells her he cannot change the outcome, but he can walk there with her.
We may not agree on why John recovers. This cast makes us glad and relieved that he does, even if the story veers into smugness that undermines its message.
Parents should know that the story concerns a very serious accident involving teenagers and critical medical conditions.
Family discussion: Why didn’t John want to do the report about his family? Why was it hard for Joyce to trust Jason, and how did that change?
Rated PG for action/peril and some mild rude humor
Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
April 12, 2019
The latest from stop-motion animation masters LAIKA studios is “Missing Link,” another astonishing leap forward with spectacularly gorgeous settings and characters so subtly expressive that the animators are as much a part of the performances as the outstanding voice talent. With less of the sadness-tinged depth of the four previous LAIKA films, “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Box Trolls,” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Missing Link” has more silly humor and a grander scope of adventure. The previous films were unusual both in bringing themes of loss, grief, death, and depression into films for families as they were in the high-touch textures of the made, not digitized world. This one is more conventional in its narrative, for the first time with adults (if some immature ones) as the lead characters. Like all of the others, it is stunningly beautiful and gorgeously realized.
It is the story of a time when the combined innocence, ambition, and hubris we may now think of as privilege meant that gentlemen had a certain noblesse oblige that led to undertakings falling somewhere between audacious and downright crazy. We will see a fact-based movie about perhaps the most downright crazy later this year in “The Professor and the Madman,” with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn as two of the men behind the Oxford English dictionary, working for decades to document every single word in the English language. This was an era when an educated, if not exactly employed, gentleman was expected to be as curious and knowledgable about nature as about poetry. For these men, the world, especially the undocumented world, was one great big museum, laboratory, encyclopedia, and, we have to admit it, playground to be colonized, captured, pillaged, and otherwise grabbed. And then of course they came home so they could brag about it in their tony, mahogany-paneled, leather-chair furnished, and very, very, very exclusive clubs.
Hugh Jackman provides the voice for Sir Lionel Frost, a fearless adventurer who is on a quest for scientific discovery but also for recognition. He wants very much to be accepted by the tony Optimates Club. “Optimates” means “best ones,” and, as is so often the case, for the men in the club that means they pride themselves on keeping out anyone they do not consider “best.”
We first see Lionel trying to document the Loch Ness monster, so intrepid himself that he is unable to notice the extreme distress of his sidekick, who gets chomped as Lionel is ordering him to take a photograph. That relationship ends quickly. But Lionel gets a letter that he thinks will lead him to membership in the Optimates at last — someone wants him to find the elusive Bigfoot/Sasquatch creature, the possible missing link between apes and humans.
And it turns out that someone is Bigfoot himself, or, as he will soon be known, Susan (voice of Zach Galifianakis). Susan is the last of his kind, and he needs the help of an experienced adventurer to take him to his nearest relations, the Yeti in the mountains of Asia. Their goals are different. Lionel wants the triumph and fame of being known as the one to find Bigfoot. And he wants the Optimates Club to let him in. Can he do that and keep Susan safe?
The journey begins, from one breathtaking vista to the next. Please, see this film for the first of what I expect will be multiple viewings, on a very big screen. It will knock you out.
Lionel needs a map, which means he has to contact Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), the widow of his romantic and adventuring rival. She is every bit as brave as her husband, and joins the expedition. They go from one spectacular location to another. The fact that the characters are real-world dolls or puppets and that the environments around them are all built with meticulous attention to the tiniest of details, each frame of the 24 frames per second film shot individually makes the world of the story especially inviting, immersive, and tactile. You could spend all day watching it over and over and you still would not see how the tiny flutter of a leaf as an elephant passes by makes the world of the film so real, but subliminally it helps to create not just an authenticity of the physical world but the kind of authenticity only the vision of true artisans with endless commitment and creativity can make come to life.
Susan’s group is being tracked by Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by the head of the Optimates Club to stop them. This conflict is the weaker part of the film. The theme of what groups we want or should want to be a part of and what groups want us to be a part of them is a fine one, but it is far from unexplored, especially in family movies, and does not have the nuanced portrayal we have come to expect from LAIKA. The ending is a bit abrupt, suggesting a possible mid-course change of direction in the midst of the painstaking filming process.
But the adventure, engaging chemistry between Susan and Lionel, and easy-going humor keep things moving along, with the Missing Link teaching the man something about what humanity. It is telling that when someone needs to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an elderly woman, Lionel’s first thought is to make Susan do it and Susan’s first concern is to make sure his breath does not offend. The real star here is the visuals, from vast, breathtaking vistas to genuine emotion in the subtlest facial expression, are an extraordinary achievement. As always I look forward to whatever LAIKA does next.
Parents should know that this film includes peril and some violence (no one seriously hurt) and some potty humor and mild language.
Family discussion: How did Lionel change his mind about what was important? What will Adelina do next?
If you like this, try: the other LAIKA films and two other Bigfoot movies for families, “Smallfoot” and “Harry and the Hendersons”
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material
Some schoolyard language and a few bad words
Teens try to buy beer, character with some substance abuse issues
Extended action/comic book peril and violence
Date Released to Theaters:
April 5, 2019
Here’s a word you don’t hear very often in reviews of superhero movies: “Shazam!” is adorable. Oh, yes, it’s exciting and has great fights and special effects and a good bad guy and all that. But it is also wildly entertaining, downright delightful, and, yes, adorable. This is an especially welcome development from DC Comic and Warner Brothers, which have tended toward the it’s-depressing-so-it-must-be-profound side of superhero stories.
“SHAZAM!” is fun. It is exciting. It is warm-hearted. It is very funny. And it is, no kidding, wise, in its own way much more profound than many portentous comic book movies with angsty heroes.
Screenwriter Henry Gayden draws as much from the classic Penny Marshall/Tom Hanks movie “Big” as he does from the varied history of the comic book character whose name is an acronym for the sources of his power:
S The wisdom of Solomon
H The strength of Hercules
A The stamina of Atlas
Z The power of Zeus
A The courage of Achilles
M The speed of Mercury
But Shazam has one more power that is even more intriguing — when teenager Billy Batson (a terrific Asher Angel) says “SHAZAM!” he doesn’t just turn into a superhero — he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). So Billy/Shazam is excited about being super-strong and having the power to zap things, but he is just as excited about being able to buy beer.
One thing he is not excited about is being sent to another foster home. Billy became separated from his mother at a fair when he was a child and has been bouncing around in the foster system ever since, trying to track down his mother whenever he gets a chance — and making chances when he does not.
The new foster home is headed by a couple who were foster kids themselves and it includes an assortment of children, most of whom try to reassure Billy, but he has no interest. His roommate is Freddy (an equally terrific Jack Dylan Grazer), who walks with a crutch. But Billy does not want to make friends and getting close to anyone seems to him like an admission that his real family, his mother, will never be found. “Families are for people who can’t take care of themselves,” he says. And yet he cannot stop looking for the mother he lost, or who lost him.
And then Billy meets a wizard (Djimon Hounsou). We’ve already seen a flashback where another kid was given the chance to gain the powers of Shazam but failed the test. We won’t find out whether Billy passes the test because the wizard’s time is running out and Billy is his last chance. So, Billy gets the powers, and we get to watch him try to figure out what they are. So does Freddy, who becomes his sidekick, and then his friend, and then, maybe, his family.
While Billy/Shazam is having a blast — literally — with his new powers, the boy who failed the test in 1974 is now an angry man (all-purpose villain Mark Strong as Dr. Thaddeus Sivana) who has spent his life trying to get another chance at the powers that he was once offered.
The film embraces its “Big” themes, with a callout to its most iconic scene, as Billy/Shazam pauses in a chase scene to play with a giant keyboard in a toy store.
Like Hanks, Levi shows us the boy inside the man, the unguarded expressions of someone who has not yet developed a social mask and the awkward moves of someone still trying on the adult body and not too sure of how it takes up space. Angel and Glazer are both outstanding, with tons of cinematic charisma. The story of Billy and Freddy is a perfect balance to the special effects/superhero storyline, and Billy’s growing understanding of what family really means is heartfelt and genuinely sweet.
To say more would be to spoil the movie’s best surprises, and you deserve to see them un-spoiled. Just go to one of this year’s most entertaining films.
NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes!
ALSO NOTE: This is the first of two “Big”-inspired films this month. Coming up, we have the “Big” triple reversal “Little,” starring Black-ish’s Marsai Martin, who came up with the idea when she was watching the Hanks film. Instead of a white boy wishing to be big, this ons is about a black woman who is wished into becoming a child again. The film co-stars Regina Hall and “Insecure’s” Issa Rae.
Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/superhero peril and violence, some schoolyard and brief strong language, a teen sneaking into a strip club, and some potty humor. There are issues of parental abandonment.
Family discussion: What did Billy learn from seeing his mother? If you had Shazam’s powers, what would you do first? Was the wizard’s test a good one? How was Thaddeaus affected by his father?
If you like this, try: “Thor: Ragnarock” and “Wonder Woman”
Rated R for language, some violence and drug content
Very strong and crude language
Drug dealing and drug use
Peril and violence, animal abuse, discussion of domestic abuse
Date Released to Theaters:
March 29, 2019
Prisoner Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) uncomfortable in his orange Department of Corrections jumpsuit, uncomfortable in a room with another person, uncomfortable in his own skin, does not answer when the other person, Connie Britton as a counselor, asks him a hypothetical question about how he would respond to seeing a woman he loved kissing someone else. She tries something less hypothetical, asking for his thoughts about his years in isolation and how he feels about being re-integrated into the general prison population. “I’m not good with people,” he says, and we can see he is right.
And so, Roman is assigned to shovel manure. The prison participates in the federal government’s program to train wild horses so they can be sold. As we see in the film’s opening scenes, it is thrilling to see the wild horses race across gorgeous natural settings, the embodiment of the American spirit of freedom and like a whole verse of their own from “America the Beautiful.” But there are too many of them even for the 29 million acres across ten states, and so some are captured every year. Many of them are put down. But some are given to prisoners so they can learn skills that will help them after they leave. The prisoners tame the horses, which are then sold, many to the government itself for border patrol.
Nothing could be more natural than prisoners relating to angry, terrified wild horses in cages. Because he is so uncooperative, insisting that he does not get along with people, he is assigned the job of shoveling manure. But that brings him to where the horses are, horses that once were wild and are now confined to cages. Roman is drawn, naturally, to the angriest and most terrified of all.
Henry (Jason Mitchell of “Straight Outta Compton”) is one of the inmates who works with the horses, his superior status indicated in the privilege of wearing denim instead of prison orange. He and the civilian head of the horse training program, Myles (Bruce Dern in full grizzle mode) decide to give Roman a chance. But that means Roman will have to learn patience and gentleness. A man whose body and soul have been clenched for as long as he can remember has to learn to relax his shoulders to encourage the horse to calm down.
And that means he has to actually be relaxed, because the horse will know. You can’t pretend. Just as Roman gentles the horse, the horse gentles him. And he goes from being a man who almost sat down at the wrong table when his daughter came to visit because he had no idea what she looked like to someone who for the first time is able to tell her how he feels.
Actress turned first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has a real eye for lyrical images and a gift for casting actors of exceptional skill. Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor who has shown a rare gift for supporting performances of quiet power in films like “A Bigger Splash” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” shows a great deal by seemingly doing very little. He is extraordinary in the emotional scene with Roman’s daughter (an excellent Gideon Adlon), but he is just as extraordinary in the scenes with the horse and when he is at last permitted the honor of wearing denim. Mitchell, in a small role, continues to be one of the most appealing performers of his generation with enormous charm.
The script wavers at times, and audiences should know that despite the involvement of Robert Redford, who played the horse whisperer, this is not the Hallmark movie version of the story. But Clermont-Tonnerre is a gifted filmmaker and the performances she whispered from her cast make this an impressive debut.
Parents should know that this film has very strong language, drug dealing and drug use, description of violence, including domestic violence, animal abuse, peril and violence.
Family discussion: Why was Roman drawn to Marquis? How did working with Marquis make Roman want to talk to his daughter?
If you like this try: “Greenfingers,” starring Clive Owen and Helen Mirren, also based on the true story of prisoners who find purpose in a special program, this one gardening and the documentary “Dogs on the Inside” about a prisoners training guide dogs.