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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Knives Out

Posted on November 25, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Murder mystery with graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 26, 2019
Date Released to DVD: February 24, 2020
Copyright 2019 Lionsgate

You know those murder mysteries where a big rich family all gathers in a big gothic house and someone gets killed and everyone has a motive and we get a bunch of red herrings (often the initial suspect is the second murder victim) and then the detective gathers everyone in the drawing room at the end to lay out all of the possible scenarios and then point dramatically at the surprise perpetrator? Those mysteries are sometimes called “cozies.” “Knives Out” is both a loving tribute and a cheeky meta-take on this genre from writer/director Rian Johnson and an all-star cast clearly having the time of their lives. It is deliciously nasty, seasoned with some political jibes, a ton of fun and anything but cozy.

It takes place in a magnificently gothic mansion correctly described by a character as something out of a Clue game. The owner is wealthy mystery author Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer), his name a likely nod to the classic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. “Knives Out” is literal — there is a huge “Game of Thrones”-style ceremonial seat decorated with daggers — and metaphoric, as a family of unpleasant heirs needle each other as they strive for the patriarch’s favor, meaning his money.

Just after the family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday party, Thromby is found dead, his throat cut, an apparent suicide. The suspects are: his daughter Linda (Jamie Leigh Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Thromby’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Thromby’s publishing company, Thromby’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of his late son and the proprietor of a pretentious “wellness” company, Thromby’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), the daughter of an undocumented immigrant. Other possible suspects include Harlan’s dotty mother Greatnana (K Callan), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their alt-right teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Joni’s college-student daughter Meg (Katharine Langford of “13 Reasons Why”), and Fran the housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Thromby’s son, daughter, and daughter-in-law think of themselves as successful entrepreneurs but in reality they are subsidized by Thromby, who has no illusions about their business acumen or their expressions of affection.

A cop (Lakeith Stanfield) accompanied by a state trooper (Noah Segan) starts asking questions. And then one of the suspects asks a question: Who is the man who has been silently sitting in the back, listening to everything that is going on? It is legendary “last of the gentleman sleuths” private Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose ridiculous name is matched by his honey-dripping Southern drawl, compared by one character to the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn (a caricatured rooster inspired by the caricatured Senator Claghorn on the old Fred Allen radio show). The first mystery is that he does not know who hired him to be there. He just received an envelope with cash inside.

We get a chance to see some illuminating flashbacks that let us in on some of what has happened before the detectives or the family know. And we get to know them better, especially Marta, repeatedly referred to patronizingly by the family as “one of the family” but no one can seem to remember which Spanish-speaking country she and her family come from. Marta is of special value to Blanc because she is a human lie detector, at least about her own truthfulness. If she does not tell the truth, she involuntarily projectile vomits. (Really.) She has a few secrets that she is desperate to conceal, especially after a motive is revealed. Characters make and break alliances as it seems no one can be trusted, and what is revealed just shows us how much more we don’t know.  The twists and turns will keep you guessing until the end and the unexpected barbs of satire make this as delicious as the fictional Thromby’s best-sellers.

Parents should know that this is a murder mystery with some grisly and graphic images, some strong language, family conflicts, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Which character did you suspect and why? Why did Thromby make that decision about his fortune?

If you like this, try: the original “Murder on the Orient Express,” “And Then There Were None,” and Rian Johnson’s other genre-bending films “Looper” and “Brick”

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Avengers: Endgame

Posted on April 24, 2019 at 10:42 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: A handful of swear words including one said by a child
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy/comic book action, peril, and violence, battle scenes, characters injured and killed, very sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 12, 2019

Copyright 2019 Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios sticks the landing with “Avengers: Endgame,” a completely satisfying conclusion to the nearly two dozen films, bringing together the stories of a wide range of characters with complex, varied mythologies extending back over decades of stories in comics and other media.

We need to all take a moment to pay tribute to Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios, who has produced them all with a deep understanding of the characters and the fans and a truly remarkable ability to find a nuanced balance between canon and innovation. His willingness to let the individual stories of the characters develop in such different genres and still bring them together when it is time for the Avengers to assemble is an essential element of the success of the series. It would be like having separate film series for Harry Potter, Hermione, Ron, Draco, Professor McGonagall, and Dumbledore, one a romantic comedy, one a thriller, one a crime drama, one a political allegory, and then brought them all together every so often to continue the core story.

I am going to do my best to continue this review without spoilers, but there is one I am sure no one will mind. You do NOT need to stay through the very end as there are no extra scenes following the credits. That seems right for a movie that is such a resounding conclusion and I know you will be happy to get those ten minutes of your life back instead of sitting through the names of the personal chefs of the stars. Now, if you want to see it without knowing anything more than whether I liked it, let me just say here that I thought it was great and you can come back and read the rest after you’ve watched it and want to let me know what you think.

To answer the most frequently asked question: no, three hours does not seem long. It’s really three movies in one, and — fair warning — I could feel my objective critical faculties dissolving after about forty minutes when I realized that it was combining three of my very favorite movie genres in one. First is Marvel superhero stories, of course, with great effects and action, both one-on-one (and I really mean ONE) and big, BIG, battles. Then there’s getting the band back together, with a group of people who once worked together very closely but were not always in agreement (the “Civil War” debate comes back) seek each other out and try to form a team again. And then a heist, or rather, several heists, as the Avengers’ favorite McGuffin is very much a part of the story. There’s a fourth major theme as well, but that’s something I will not spoil except to say that even though they make delightful fun of the way that theme has been portrayed in many other movies, I strongly advise you not to think too deeply about whether the way it is portrayed in this one does any better in terms of consistency or logic.

To answer the second most frequently asked question: yes, you have to have seen the previous movie and as many in the series as possible to get the most out of it. This movie was made by fans for fans and there is tremendous depth that shows how thoroughly this world has been studied and imagined (though only one of the very knowledgable group I spoke to following the film could identify a briefly glimpsed teenage boy toward the end). To confirm the most frequent speculations of those anticipating the film, yes, we will be saying goodbye to some characters, every one of them in a supremely satisfying way, but bring a handkerchief. Yes, we will see some we thought were lost back again, sometimes in a flashback. One of the elements I loved most in this film was those flashbacks, which might give us a different look at scenes we thought we knew.

And the answer to a question that maybe fans forgot to ask, after all these movies: Yes, someone does say, “Avengers, assemble!” I admit it, my heart skipped a beat. It also thumped pretty hard several times and I cried more than once. The skill it takes to fight with Thanos is nothing compared to the skill it took to bring this series to such vibrant, thrilling life, and I am grateful to Stan Lee (yes, he gets a great cameo), Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Kevin Feige, Disney, the Russos, and especially to each of these actors, who bring their A game every time, for assembling this joyous finale.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/comic book peril, action, and violence with monsters, battle scenes, explosions, very sad deaths including death of a parent and fatal sacrifices and a handful of bad words, including one said by a child.

Family discussion: Did Cap make the right choice? What did the characters learn from their past experiences? Which Avenger is your favorite?

If you like this try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Black Panther,” “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

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Avengers: Infinity War

Posted on April 25, 2018 at 1:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references
Profanity: About a dozen bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense action-style peril and violence, chases, explosions, supervillains, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 27, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 13, 2018
Copyright Marvel 2018

A two hour and forty minute movie can still feel too short when there are so many of our favorite characters, and that is the good news and the bad news about the much-anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The good news is that we get the ultimate mash-up of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. That means a whole lot of quippy action scenes. My greatest fear was that with so many characters most of them would not have enough time to do much on screen either by way of action or by way of drama, and the pretty good news is that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a good job of giving everyone his or her own space — literally, by sending them off in different directions to keep the interactions manageable, and figuratively, by giving most of them individual character arcs, or, perhaps we should say arc-lettes as they are sketched in just enough to add a little substance sauce to the main course of the action.

The less great news is that the storyline is something of a let-down following the exceptional depth and complexity of “The Black Panther.” As I have said many, many times before, superhero movies depend entirely on the quality of the supervillain, and Erik Killmonger was the top of the line as bad guys go, nuanced, sympathetic, human, and utterly magnetic. Any movie, but especially a fantasy movie, has to be completely clear about the stakes, meaning that in a superhero movie we have to know exactly what the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces are and what they are fighting over. We don’t need a lot of detail; there’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock used to speak so dismissively about the “McGuffin,” whatever it was everyone in the story wants so badly. All we need to know is why it matters, how to get it, and how keep it from the wrong person.

The bad guy here is Thanos (Josh Brolin) a CGI-d Titan of enormous power who is seeing the ultimate power, which he can achieve via the six Infinity Stones. He has a handy glove with spaces for each stone, and once he has them all he can achieve his goal of wiping out half of the life forms in the universe with the snap of his gigantic fingers. Much of the movie consists of him beating up all of the superheroes, a couple of whom are quickly dispatched in the first scene. We hear a lot about how important it is that he be stopped but we do not get many specifics about how his powers work or what, if any, vulnerabilities can be used against him. And that makes the battles more set-pieces, exceptionally well-staged set-pieces than drama. And then, in the middle, almost quiet next to the supernova intensity of the star power, the dazzle to the saturation point of the action scenes, and the Hulk-level heavy lifting of the realignment of the movie MCU to accommodate some thoughtful and even subtle variations on whether it is right to sacrifice one life to save many others.

But mostly, there’s a lot of action. Remember that refugee spaceship at the end of “Thor: Ragnarok?” And the feud between Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, no longer the clean-cut WWII poster boy)? We pick up both as Thanos, the most powerful creature on the planet and the adoptive father of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) arrives in search of the five remaining Infinity Stones he needs to complete the set and wipe out half the universe. It’s time to get the band back together, with some of the team who have been missing in action, like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), having a bit of trouble getting his Hulk on. And the team now includes a high school intern, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who is so new and so in awe that he still calls Iron Man “Mr. Stark.”

Thanos has some nasty henchmen and henchwomen and hench-creatures who show up to help him find the stones. And the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Gamora, join on, with a sulky, now-adolescent Groot who can’t be pried away from his hand-held game device.

There are some very funny moments as the group gets to know each other, a few cheeky pop culture references, and an extended section in Wakanda gives us a chance to spend some more time with some characters who are already fan favorites (How about giving Shuri her own movie, Kevin Feige? And the Dora Milaje?) A few non-Avengers make a strong impression in their brief screen time, especially Peter Dinklage as a giant weapons-maker. But after nearly three hours (and only one after-credits scene?), with some savagely painful losses, it is unsatisfying to leave on the biggest cliffhanger since they freeze-dried Han Solo. There’s a point past which you stop topping yourself and just run out of breath — and that point is when you inform us several times that Thanos has ultimate power and then take us to a planet where there is a weapon that can stop him. There’s an infinite regression/irresistible force-immovable object paradox issue.

This movie is so big it has three superheroes played by superstars named Chris, and I haven’t even gotten to Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, Winston Duke as M’Baku, Paul Bettany as Vision, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Sebastian Stan as Bucky, and Anthony Mackie as Falcon, all of whom get a chance to make an impression that leaves us wanting more. At times it feels like the Fellowship of the Infinity Stones, even approaching the grandeur of the Tolkien trilogy in its scope and the depth of its world-building. Or, I should say, worlds-building. There’s even time for some very sweet romance, and we see how those romantic complications present complicated challenges in the midst of battle. Also, dog monsters.

I trust the Russos to bring it all together with the next chapter. I hope it’s soon.

Parents should know that this film features extended comic-book action-style violence with many characters injured and killed, brief crude humor, and about a dozen strong words.

Family discussion: How many times did someone in the film have to decide whether it was worth sacrificing one life to save many others? Which superheroes were better at cooperating and why? Why does Thanos think he is right?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Iron Man,” “The Avengers,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “The Black Panther”

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Gifted

Posted on April 6, 2017 at 5:37 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scenes in bar, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to sad death of parent, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank Adler” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.
Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank Adler” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

What does it mean to be “gifted?” Movies and television don’t do a very good job of portraying what it means to be cognitively advanced, and this one is not close to being realistic, with a first grader who reads up on the problems of the EU and can identify a missing minus sign in an equation several lines long. And she is adorably missing those top front teeth for a really long time when anyone who has ever been the family tooth fairy knows that the new ones come in pretty fast. What we learn from this is that the movie does not want to take any chance that you might need a reminder of how endearing it all is. Everything looks dipped in honey and the script is gooey, too, like a lesser Hallmark movie. But Chris Evans’ sensitive, deeply affecting performance and genuine chemistry with McKenna Grace as his brilliant niece are so honest that it captivates us anyway.

Evans is Frank, who repairs boats and lives with Mary (McKenna Grace) in a tiny apartment in Florida. They have an easy rapport and are completely at home with each other. Mary is also close to their neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer). Mary is cognitively advanced, very curious, sometimes impatient, and sometimes anxious due to her reading about the world economy. Frank has been teaching her at home, but she is about to start first grade at a public school because he wants her to be with other children and to be more of a child herself. “Try being a kid,” Frank tells her as she gets on the bus. He does not really think it is possible to “dumb her down into being a normal kid,” or that it would be the right thing to do if it was, but he would like her to have the chance to make friends with children her own age and learn how to play.

It does not take long for Mary’s new teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) to figure out that Mary is truly gifted, after she has to take out her calculator to check Mary’s computations. Frank’s attempts to deflect her attention are unsuccessful, but Bonnie appreciates his commitment to trying to create some kind of normalcy around Mary. She also appreciates Frank. Though they both know it is not a good idea for Mary or for Bonnie’s job, they begin a relationship.

And then Evelyn (a nicely frosty Lindsay Duncan) shows up. She is Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother. She brings a laptop for Mary and a message for Frank: she wants Mary to get an education commensurate with her ability. “She’s not normal and treating her as such is negligence on a grand scale,” she says. We will learn more about why that matters so much to Evelyn and why Frank refuses when they take the custody fight to court.

Of course we know whose side we should root for and where it is all going. This movie has a lovable one-eyed cat, for goodness sake. But Evans and Grace have a little bit of magic that shines through.

Parents should know that there are some mature themes in this film including a custody battle, a sad parental death by suicide (off-screen) with some strong language, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, alcohol and cigarettes.

Family discussion: Would you like to be as smart as Mary? Why didn’t Mary’s mother want Evelyn to know what she had done?

If you like this, try: “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “Little Man Tate” — and “Captain January” with Shirley Temple

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