Kung Fu Panda 4

Posted on March 7, 2024 at 6:33 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images and some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style peril and martial arts fight scenes
Diversity Issues: None

Skidoosh! Jack Black returns as Po in the fourth chapter of the saga about the big-hearted panda who has become a kung fu master with the title of Dragon Warrior, and earned the gratitude of his community and the respect of his colleagues, the Furious Five. If you don’t know who they are, don’t worry; they are briefly seen and not heard (very expensive voice talent) in this film.

But there’s plenty of top-level voice talent anyway, with Dustin Hoffman returning as the red panda Master Shifu, Viola Davis as The Chameleon, Black’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” co-star Awkwafina as a fox named Zhen. Also returning are Po’s two dads, his adoptive father, the excitable Mr. Ping (James Hong) and the cuddly and fearful Li (Bryan Cranston), now close friends.

A brief prologue shows the return of the first villain Po defeated, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), apparently escaped from the spirit world determined “to take what is mine, which is everything that is yours.”

Po is happy as the movie begins. He is respected and beloved in his community and welcomes customers to Mr. Ping’s expanded restaurant. He signs autographs and poses for pictures (created with a paintbrush). He has accepted the staff of wisdom from Master Shifu without really thinking about what it means — that it is time for him to ascend to the next level, “passing on wisdom and inspiring hope,” and select a successor Dragon Warrior. Po is proud of achieving that title and reluctant to let it go. When he meditates on a new Dragon Warrior, his mind quickly moves from “inner peace” to “dinner, please.”

Tai Lung has not returned. That was an even more dangerous villain, The Chameleon, a shapeshifter with powerful magic. Po meets Zhen, a thief and a liar who grew up on the streets of Juniper City. She promises to bring him to The Chameleon. But can she be trusted?

This fourth chapter meets or exceeds the vibrance and heart of the first three films. The animation is superb, with outstandingly imagined settings, camera angles, styles, and action scenes. The gentle exploration of the conflicting feelings about growing up is sensitive and insightful. Awkwafina is, as always, funny and endearing in her portrayal of a character who is seeing what it means to be trustworthy and kind for the first time. The Chameleon, marvelously designed, with voice by Davis, is an excellent villain, imperious, steely, and ruthless. And there are a number of funny supporting characters, including Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan as the leader of the underground lair of thieves, and a trio of deceptively cute but secretly bloodthirsty little creatures. The balance between action and humor is just right, with a very funny bulls in a china shop moment and a precariously balanced tavern. And Po is, as always, an appealing hero, always on the side of helping others but still with more to learn.

Parents should know that this film includes extended action- and cartoon-style scenes of martial arts peril and violence, some schoolyard language (“screwed up,” etc.), and references to orphanhood and neglect. Some families may be sensitive to the portrayal of an adopted character who is equally devoted to his biological and adoptive father.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: the other “Kung Fu Panda” movies and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” with Black and Awkwafina

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Quiz Lady

Posted on November 2, 2023 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, some injuries
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2023

Copyright 2023 Hulu
Sandra Oh and Awkwafina playing sisters in a comedy? Sign me up!  They’re two of my favorites. There’s one wild sister with blue hair extensions, big earrings, and no impulse control and one shy, serious sister who dresses in drab monotone and watches her favorite game show with her 20-year-old dog every night? Sounds like fun! And Oh, the dramatic actress from “Killing Eve” is playing the wild one and Awkwafina, the comic who first came to public attention with a song about her private parts is the shy, serious one? Wait, what?

Yep. And it is clear that both of them had a blast making this outrageous comedy, which makes it all the more fun for us. Oh plays Jenny Yum, ten years older than her younger sister, Anne (Awkwafina), the responsible one who works in a CPA office, where she stays in her cubicle as her co-workers celebrate a birthday because no one thought to invite her and she would not join them even if they had.

Jenny and Anne had a chaotic childhood. Their single mother was off partying and gambling. Jenny responded by getting as far away as soon as possible. She has failed after half-hearted attempts at several careers but has developed some survival skills, small-time scams, asking her sister for money, and suing a restaurant for a fish bone found in her filet. Anne takes care of their mother, now in assisted living. She devotes herself to Linguine, the dog Jenny left behind, and to her favorite television show, a “Jeopardy”-like competition called “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” The kindly, bow-tied host, Terry McTeer (Will Ferrell) is a stable force in her life, almost a father figure. She finds his nightly sign-off, “Don’t go anywhere; I know I won’t,” reassuring.

Their mother runs away from assisted living, leaving behind an $80,000 gambling debt. The sisters are given two weeks to pay it back, with the loan shark holding Linguine as hostage. Jenny thinks the only way to get the money is for Anne to win it on “Can’t Stop the Quiz.” Anne, who cannot bear to have anyone look at her, is horrified by the idea of being on television. But she is desperate to get Linguine back.

All of this is just an excuse for extended farce as the sisters interact with a powerhouse cast of supporting actors, including Holland Taylor as a grumpy neighbor who loves Alan Cumming, Tony Hale as the owner of a Ben Franklin-themed inn, and Jason Schwartzman as the quiz show’s smarmy current champion, with ultra-white teeth veneers that practically glow in the dark. Plus there’s a display of hundreds of bow ties that is the background for a very sweet conversation. Wild physical comedy and surreal interactions are grounded by the way the sisters begin to resolve their differences. It is funny, it is outrageous, and it is surprisingly tender-hearted.

Parents should know that this film has mature material including drinking and drug use (an extended humorous drug trip sequence), comic peril and violence and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Jenny and Anne respond so differently to the way they grew up? If you were trying to play charades with a member of your family, what could you do that no one else would understand?

If you like this, try: “Lucky Grandma” and “Rat Race”

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The Little Mermaid

Posted on May 23, 2023 at 2:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Scary monster, characters in peril, tense situations
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 26, 2023

Copyright Disney 2023

Disney’s live-action remake of the classic animated film that was a turning point marking the revitalization of Disney’s legendary animation division invites us to once again, be part of the world of mermaid Ariel (pop duet singer Halle Bailey) and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). As in the original film, the couple at the center are both a bit bland, and therefore perhaps the better question is whether we want to be part of the world of sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) and Ariel’s sidekicks, Scuttle (Awkwafina), Flounder (Jacob Trembley), and Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), the classic songs with some additions from “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the visuals from cinematographer Dion Beebe, working with his “Chicago” collaborator, director Rob Marshall. The easy answer to that question is yes.

Again, it is a romanticized, happily-ever-after version of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the one so central to the Danish identity that it inspired the iconic statue in Copenhagen. In both of the Disney versions, Ariel is a rebellious teenager, the daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), who tells her than humans are evil and orders her to stay under water.

Eric, the adopted son of the widowed queen (a wonderfully regal Noma Dumezweni) is also ordered to stay away from the “other” world. Even before they meet, we see that he and Ariel have an adventurous spirit and core values of optimism, inclusion, and progressive views about the need to adapt to change in common.

Eric is my favorite Disney prince because, especially in the animated version, he is a little more off-beat than the usual stalwart, swashbuckling heroes. In his first scene, at sea, he shows us that he is not a snob and that he not only brings his dog on board, he risks his life to run through fire to save him. And then Ariel, who has been watching, saves both dog and prince from drowning. After a glimpse at the rescue, Ariel and Eric long to be together again, and that is when Ariel makes her fateful bargain with the sea witch.

Parts of this movie are truly enchanting, especially the underwater scenes. The opening moments on Prince Eric’s ship are thrillingly filmed and the “Under the Sea” number is a glorious Busby Berkeley underwater fantasia. A new number for Awkwafina from Lin-Manuel Miranda is a total banger. Some of the gentle updates to give Ariel more agency and the cast more diverse work well, and Colleen Atwood’s costumes are gorgeous. Other parts do not work as well. The ending is clumsy and drags on too long. The movie would be better with a 15 or 20 minutes shorter run time. But its best moments make us want to be part of Ariel’s world.

Parents should know that this film has some peril and scary moments including a fire on a sinking ship and a monstrous character.

Family discussion: Why do the Queen and King Triton fear going outside of their own communities? What will Eric and Ariel find? Which song is your favorite?

If you like this, try: the animated version, and the music of Chloe x Halle (note: some has mature language)

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Renfield

Posted on April 13, 2023 at 8:05 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, vampires, some very grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 13, 2023

Copyright 2023 Universal Pictures
If I told you to try to imagine a film from the creators of “Rick and Morty,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Robot Chicken” based on the IP (intellectual property) owned by the movie studio behind “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” and “The Wolfman,” you would probably guess that it would be a a very gory but amusingly slanted take on a classic, filled with goofy contemporary references. And you’d be right.

No one every paid much attention to Renfield in the many previous versions of the Dracula story, but as the title informs us, here he is the main character. Renfield is the unfortunate soul who is stuck as Dracula’s “familiar,” somewhere between a sidekick and a servant. Dracula has endowed (or cursed) him with eternal life at a lesser level. While Dracula (Nicolas Cage, having a blast) feasts on human blood, fresh, pure blood from unsuspecting tourists, nuns, and busloads of cheerleaders preferred, giving him some superpowers of strength and flight, blood that can cure injuries, and the ability to transform into bats, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) feasts on insects, giving him extremely good fighting skills. They both have some vulnerabilities as well. Dracula has his well-known problems with sunlight (it makes him burst into flames) and can be confined within a circle of protection. He also cannot enter unless invited in, giving rise to one of this film’s funniest sight gags.

What would happen if Renfield, utterly in thrall to his master, joined a support group for people in co-dependent relationships? That is where this movie starts, with the contrast between Renfield’s gothic persona (the faux archival footage putting Cage and Hoult into the settings of Universal’s classic Bela Lugosi film are a lot of fun) and the pastel colors, folding chairs, and perky affirmations. The leader of the group is the empathetic Mark (Brandon Scott Jones of “The Good Place” and “Ghosts”). And when others in the group describe the people in their lives as monsters, Renfield can identify. Dracula and Renfield always have to be on the move, with a cycle of Dracula’s being attacked by hunters, reduced in power, and needing to recuperate. Their latest home is in a dank (of course) abandoned building in New Orleans.

It occurs to him that he can change his life by helping others, starting with Mitch (Dave Davis), the toxic boyfriend of support group member Caitlin (Bess Rous). When Renfield goes to confront Mitch, though, he ends up in the middle of a shoot-out with the Wolf gang, the city’s most powerful crime family, led by ruthless Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her hot-headed son Teddy (Ben Schwartz).

Rebecca (Awkwafina) is the honest cop who has been trying to bring down the Wolfs, but the rest of the police force is on the Wolf payroll. Rebecca’s sister is part of an FBI task force investigating the Wolfs, but they have not made much progress. This is personal for them; their father, also in the police force, was killed by the Wolfs. When she is attacked by the Wolfs, Renfield saves her life. She sees him as a hero and he begins to see himself that way. He wants to keep that feeling. And he likes Rebecca.

Dracula has other plans. He wants total world domination. “There is no more good and evil; only followers and food.” Mark tells Renfield the person co-dependent with a narcissist is the one with the real power in their relationship.

While the trailer suggests that this is a comedy with vampires it is more of a bloodbath with some funny moments. Cage has the role he was born for and he, I have to say it, forgive me, sinks his teeth into it all the way and then some. Hoult deftly conveys the slightly decayed English gentleman, suffused with longing and regret and hoping some inspirational posters will help. Awkwafina is, as always, delightful. It’s good to see Universal making use of its IP, I mean archive, in an innovative and affectionate way.

Parents should know that this movie is extremely gory with lots of carnage and many graphic and disturbing images and sounds. Characters use strong language. The includes drug dealing and drug use.

Family discussion: How do support groups help people who are in toxic relationships? What does Renfield’s apartment tell us about his feelings? How did Dracula get people agree to be his familiars?

If you like this, try: “What We Do in the Shadows,” the film and television series, and of course the many versions of the Dracula story starting with the Bela Lugosi 1931 version imitated in this film’s fake archival footage

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The Bad Guys

Posted on April 21, 2022 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated.PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon action-style law enforcement peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 22, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
“The Bad Guys,” based on the popular series of graphic novels by Aaron Blabey, is an adorable animated film about guys who are not as bad as they think. They are seen as the scariest animals on earth, but even when they are committing crimes, they do not realize that they have good qualities, too. They are loyal friends, for example, and honest some of the time. We first see Wolf (Sam Rockwell) and Snake (Mark Maron) in a diner, where Wolf not only celebrates Snake’s birthday but even when there’s no one to pay for the meal, they make sure to pay for it anyway.

And then they rob the bank across the street. Okay, they’re bad. That could be, though, because they are just behaving the way people expect. Wolves, sharks, snakes, tarantulas, and piranhas have bad reputations. So they’re just living up or rather down to what the humans around them expect.

Adults watching with their children may notice the resemblance to some very adults-only movies, the first scene a tip of the cinematic chapeau to “Pulp Fiction,” not just the diner setting but the rhythm of the dialogue and the editing. Like the “Sesame Street” versions of adult content, it is there to entertain the grown-ups, but it is also there because even toned-down, it is fun to watch.

“The Bad Guys” has the fun of another genre kids do not often see, the heist film, with all kinds of problem-solving, setbacks, and teamwork. In addition to Wolf, the cool, Danny Ocean planner-type, and Snake, an escape artist, the gang also includes, of course, a tech whiz, Awkwafina as Tarantula, and eight legs come in very handy working on keyboards. Shark (Craig Robinson) is the master of disguise. And Piranha (Anthony Ramos) is the muscle. (The movie characters wisely have more diversity than the books.) The voice talent is superb. Not all actors can do voice work. It makes sense; they’re used to being able to rely on their faces and bodies to express emotion. But Sam Rockwell gives one of his all-time best performances as Wolf, perfectly matching the cool sophistication of the character and his moments of doubt and vulnerability. The animation is outstanding, stylish and dynamic when it needs to be, touches of anime, especially with the police officer voiced by Alex Borstein, and a bit of a hand-drawn feel to prevent CGI over-perfection.

There are some fun surprises and twists along the way and of course some lessons on the satisfactions of being a good guy. But not too good; we want to leave room for some sequels.

Parents should know that while it is all done with humor, this is a movie about characters who commit crimes, mostly theft. There are some chases and some cartoon-style peril and a mind-control machine, but no one gets hurt. The movie also includes some rude humor and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What makes someone bad or good? Why is it hard for the bad guys to consider others’ rights and feelings? Which is your favorite bad guy character and why?

If you like this, try: the book and its sequels and “Zootopia”

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