Posted on July 14, 2016 at 5:20 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/paranormal violence with some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 15, 2016
Date Released to DVD: October 10, 2016 ASIN: B01I2FFGW6

Copyright Columbia 2016
Copyright Columbia 2016
I’m willing to believe them. I mean, sure, the original is a classic, mostly thanks to Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, and a new approach to action/paranormal comedy. But the reboot has the Mount Rushmore of movie comedy with SNL writer/cast members Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Kristen Wiig, plus America’s sweetheart Melissa McCarthy. That’s some serious comedy power there, and some serious dimples, too. It pays tribute to the original, opening with the Ray Parker, Jr. song and featuring cameos from original cast members Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson, Potts, and Weaver, and a couple of the original ghosts, too.

But it is very much its own take on the story, with a fresh script from director Paul Feig and Katie Dippold (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Heat”). There are tweaks on the original’s headquarters and car. And it has updated references — you know that if a New Yorker saw a ghost today, she’d whip out a selfie stick and Instagram it, and they pause for a burn on Reddit haters).

Like the original, it begins with scientists losing their jobs in academia because of their insistence on exploring the paranormal. Wiig plays Erin, a physicist who misses her chance at tenure when it is revealed that she once co-authored a book called Ghosts from Our Past — Both Literally and Figuratively. It was out of print, but the other author, her estranged friend Abby (McCarthy), has made it available on Amazon. Erin visits Abby’s lab and meets Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), a mad scientist type who literally plays with fire. When they are all fired, they start a company to investigate the paranormal and are soon joined by Patty (Jones), a subway worker who does not know much about science but has an extensive knowledge of New York city history. And they hire a receptionist named Kevin (“Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth) and get to work trying to capture a ghost so they can prove they are right.

Meanwhile, a nerdy guy is building a machine to unleash and intensify all of the spirits in the city, and so the women go from studying the ghosts to, yes, busting them, with a major confrontation in the midst of a metal concert with a group called “The Slimers” onstage and Ozzy Osbourne watching in the wings. The mayor (Andy Garcia) and his aide (Cecily Strong) thank the team privately but denounce them as frauds publicly to keep the city from panicking.

The final confrontation goes on a bit too long, which is probably why there is an obvious cut of what would have been a dance number (glimpsed in the credits and I hope added in full to the DVD extras). But the action scenes are strong and the comedy is first-rate, at its best achieving a deliriously loopy silliness that is refreshing in an era where gross-out, oh-no-they-didn’t jokes are considered wit.

Each of the four main characters is clearly having a blast showing what she does best, creating distinctive characters with very different styles but always working the chemistry between them with dialog that often feels improvised by actors trying to make each other laugh. It is refreshing to see a movie with four female leads who are professional, super-smart, and totally badass, kicking the butts of all the ghosts and demons and the Bechdel test as well. Their happily ever after is saving Manhattan not getting some guy to put a ring on it.

Newcomer-to the big screen McKinnon tears it up as a Doc Brown type with a wicked smile, a steampunk vibe, and a Faraday cage, swinging into a Glinda the Good Witch song and handing out weapons from a motion-activated proton glove to a Swiss army knife. “She’s doing a marvelous impression of a deflating balloon,” she says as one of her colleagues is being shot through the air. Jones, also in her first feature film lead role, is outstanding as Patty, who knows who she is and what she wants. McCarthy is adorable as always and has a lot of fun with a particular demon. And Hemsworth is flat-out hilarious as the incompetent Kevin. It’s funny, smart, and sweet and in every way as good or better than the original. Fanboys, have at it.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for glimpses of the excised dance scene and some other treats, and following the credits, a brief extra scene with some important information.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/horror peril and violence. Characters are killed (one off-screen, one suicide by electrocution), and there are some gruesome images and mild crude humor.

Family discussion: What’s your favorite ghost story? Which was the scariest ghost in the movie?

If you like this, try: the original “Ghostbusters,” “Monster House,” and “ParaNorman”

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Action/Adventure Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Remake Scene After the Credits

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Posted on April 21, 2016 at 5:11 pm

Copyright 2016 Universal
Copyright 2016 Universal
With a storyline as awkward and unfocused as its unwieldy title, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is like a mashup of “Frozen,” “Lord of the Rings,” and the Narnia movies, without any of the heart or imagination of any of them.

It’s both a prequel and a sequel to a movie no one was all that eager to see, with only 48 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes and one of those counted as positive didn’t muster much enthusiasm: “This Snow White may not be the fairest of them all, but sometimes, especially during the heat of summer, fair-to-middling does just fine.” This one is more middling than fair.

In the first film, the evil Ravenna (Charlize Theron) bewitched a king, killed him on their wedding night, and locked his daughter in a tower. Then, when she grew up to be Kristen Stewart and threatened to challenge Ravenna’s status as the fairest of them all, Ravenna ordered the Huntsman with no name to kill Snow White and bring back her heart so Ravenna could eat it and achieve permanent fairness.

In this film, we see Ravenna murder her husband, the king, over a game of chess, and we meet her sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), who is in love and pregnant. Her sister is the one with the magical powers. Freya has none — or so she thinks. But when she is faced with the ultimate loss and betrayal, all of a sudden she discovers her power, or, should I say, she lets it go. Yes, she is the queen of cold and ice. So, she leaves and takes over her own queendom, where her primary occupation is stealing children, telling them that love is illegal, and turning them into fighting machines, with freezing things a close second. Two children grow up to be world-class fighters and to be Chris Hemsworth (this time he gets a name: Eric) and Jessica Chastain as Sara. They break the big rule, and Freya punishes them terribly. Eventually, Eric ends up trying to find the magic mirror, complicated because it was stolen by goblins and because it exerts an evil “Fellowship of the Ring”-style power over anyone who looks into it. He is accompanied by two dwarves, played by Nick Frost and “The Trip’s” Rob Brydon, when, as I pointed out before, little people characters should be played by little people actors. They come across two female dwarves. One is played by Sheridan Smith, who, with Colleen Atwood’s gorgeous costumes, provides the movie’s few bright moments.

The storyline makes even less sense than the first one, with (SPOILER ALERT) repeated reliance on that weakest of plot twists, the character you are supposed to think is dead who turns out to be still alive. Blunt and Theron are game but given little to do but strut and declaim. Chris Hemsworth manages to bring his character to life and there are some striking visuals, but that can’t make up for a dreary mess.

Parents should know that this film features extended fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed including an infant, monster, some disturbing images, sexual references and situation, some strong language and crude comments.

Family discussion: What happened when Eric looked in the mirror? Why were so many of the huntsmen loyal to Freya?

If you like this, try: “Stardust” and “Jack the Giant Slayer”

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Action/Adventure Fantasy Romance

In the Heart of the Sea

Posted on December 10, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Copyright 2015 Village Roadshow
Copyright 2015 Village Roadshow

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a brilliant novel about humanity, nature, obsession, power, and pretty much everything else, with a lot of technical information about whaling thrown in for good measure and metaphor. Nathaniel Philbrick’s acclaimed book about the tragic real-life whaling expedition that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick is In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. This film is director Ron Howard’s uneven attempt to give that story the mythic force of Melville’s tale (itself never adequately adapted for film).

Like Moby Dick, this is a story of man against nature, not just the powerful animals man tries to trap and kill but of man against the animalistic elements of his own nature. That is represented, as it so often is, by the conflict between two men. The captain of the Essex is George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). He and everyone on the shop know that he is captain only because he comes from a high-born shipping family. The first mate is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, with his “Rush” director), resentful of Pollard because he was promised the captain job and knows he is more qualified.

On the first night out, Pollard makes a point of cruelly describing Chase’s father’s time in prison to establish his superiority — and his willingness to use humiliation as a management tactic. In his desperation to establish his superiority, he does not realize that it makes him look thuggish and scared. It certainly does not inspire respect or loyalty. But Chase is determined to make it work. This time, if he meets his quota, he has it in writing that his next voyage will be as captain.

The whalers are under enormous pressure. Whale oil powers the world of the 1820’s (there is a clumsy hint that the world may be shifting to fossil fuels). Whaling ships go to sea for years at a time, traveling across the Atlantic to kill whales, extract the blubber, and melt it down.

Ships — whether on water or in space — are ideal settings for stories because they are isolated from the society at large. Everything is heightened because there is no way to leave and no recourse for support or appeal. But that intensity and drama is dissipated here with a useless framing story as author Melville (Ben Whishaw) tries to get the ship’s only survivor (Brendan Gleeson) to tell him what happened. The connection is awkwardly positioned against Moby Dick‘s narrative voice and unforgettable Job-like status as the sole survivor who can carry the story and the survivor character’s sympathetic wife is a distraction and her scenes suggest after-the-fact re-shoots.

Melville was wise to reshape the story. This version has gorgeous scenery, a moving score by Roque Banos, and superb special effects, but the power of the images is undercut by a story that tries to carry more meaning than it can hold.

Parents should know that this is a whaling saga with constant and intense peril and violence including fire, guns, storms, starvation, murder, cannibalism, and sinking ship, many characters injured and killed, brief strong language, and drinking and alcoholism.

Family discussion: Why did Pollard embarrass Chase on the first night out? What were the biggest differences between Pollard and Chase in the way they treated the men? Do you agree with Chase’s “abominable” decision?

If you like this, try: “The Perfect Storm” and Melville’s Moby Dick

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story


Posted on July 28, 2015 at 6:44 pm

Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers

I didn’t like the first one. I didn’t like the sequels. Keep that in mind when I tell you that I really did not like this latest in the gross-out, mean-spirited “Vacation” series, this time with the next generation going on another car trip to Wally World. You know how kids survive long car trips with earphones and DVD players? That’s what I wished I had to help me survive this movie. I even took extra time making my notes to have an excuse to look down at my notebook instead of looking at the screen. This is a movie that finds — or tries to find — humor in mistaking a sewage facility for a natural hot springs (with extended scenes of the cast spreading the “mud” all over themselves), sibling abuse, attempted suicide, a person and an animal in separate instances getting slammed by vehicles, excruciating humiliation, suspected pedophilia, and a misunderstanding of the term “rim job.”

Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold. He bears no resemblance to the Anthony Michael Hall, who played him in the first film, or the young actors who played the character in the sequels. But Russ bears no resemblance to the character of the earlier movies, either. This Rusty is a genial bumbler who loves his family and works as a pilot for an airline.  He and his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) have two sons.  The little one, Kevin (Steele Stebbins), bullies the big one (Skyler Gisondo as James) with constant insults, attacking his manhood, personality, and overall right to exist on the planet.

Russ decides that what the family needs is some bonding time, like on that car trip to the Walley World theme park he somehow remembers very fondly from his childhood.  He rents a bright blue car called a Tartan Prancer, which he describes as “The Honda of Albania.” He has no idea what most of the buttons on the car do, but that means we all get to find out together.

The family swings by to visit Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann), who is married to a guy who looks like a Norse god, because he is played by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. He is a TV weatherman named Stone and he is rancher who intimidates Rusty by being handsome, muscular, wealthy, and good at everything, including being a loving husband, if you don’t count his preventing his wife from having a job outside the home. Oh, and as we and Rusty and Debbie get to see in detail (graphic detail at the end of the movie), he is exceptionally generously endowed and feels very, very good about it. And this is — really — the highlight of the movie.

Hemsworth and Applegate both rise above the material, but the material is below sea level, so that is not saying much.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong and crude language, very explicit sexual references and some situations, graphic nudity, disturbing scenes, comic mayhem involving people and animals, attempted suicide, apparent vehicular homicide (portrayed as funny), and a lot of bad behavior (portrayed as funny).

Family discussion: What was your family’s best road trip? What road trip would you like to take?

If you like this, try: the original “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and its sequels

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Comedy Family Issues Series/Sequel

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted on April 30, 2015 at 5:17 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language and jokes about swear words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive and intense sci-fi/comic book violence, some disturbing images, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 1, 2015
Date Released to DVD: September 28, 2015 ASIN: B00WAJ8QXC
Copyright Disney Marvel 2015
Copyright Disney Marvel 2015

Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) sums it up best. Speaking pretty much to himself but also to us in the audience, he notes that he is on a floating city trying to fight off a robot army with arrows. “It doesn’t make sense,” he concedes. And yet, that is where we are, and we’re okay with it.

Writer/director Joss Whedon knows that we know that this is some superhero silliness, and once in a while we get to see that the characters know it, too. But he never treats the stories or the fans with anything less than respect. We get wisecracks. We get romance. But most of all, we get rock ’em, sock ’em, 3D action involving super-arrows, a super-strong shield, a super-heavy hammer, a cool bang-a-gong hammer hitting shield moment, a super-big, super-angry green guy, a super-assassin, and that genius arms-dealing billionaire philanthropist, Tony Stark.

In the first “Avengers” movie, we had the fun of seeing the team come together, a sort of Traveling Wilburys supergroup made up of heroes each more than able to carry a movie alone. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Incredible Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow/Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) joined forces to defeat Thor’s brother Loki and retrieve the source of his power, one of the six infinity stones (yep, you saw another one in “Guardians of the Galaxy;” feel free to have your mind blown with Marvel universe awesomeness).

Then they had shwarma.

No time for getting acquainted here. We start smack dab in the middle of the action (thank you, 3D), as our merry band is battling the forces of Hydra, but of course not missing a beat in the quip department, even from the bad guys: “The Americans sent circus freaks to attack us.” Burn! (Both literal and metaphor.) Secret weapons hiding out with Hydra include twins who are very angry and damaged because their parents were killed (by weapons from Stark’s company). Now, thanks to some Hydra tinkering, they have superpowers, best summed up as “He’s fast and she’s weird.” He is Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and she is the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson). They both have bad Boris and Natasha accents and look like one of the Diane Arbus-like visions in “The Shining.” Her weird powers involve waggling her fingers and red smoke, with some sort of force field and the ability to impose what looks like a very bad acid trip on anyone with a biology-based brain.

But that’s not the problem. The battle with Hydra lasts just long enough to re-introduce us to everyone and not a few updates, especially a new tenderness between the Black Widow and Bruce Banner. Soon, they’re back at their clubhouse/headquarters and Tony asks for three days to investigate Loki’s stone before Thor returns to to Asgard. What could go wrong?

Pretty much everything, as Tony’s hubristic attempt to create a new artificial intelligence to protect humanity ends up as Ultron (James Spader, using that same tone of languid contempt we first heard when he played Blaine’s snooty rich friend in “Pretty in Pink”). Ultron takes one look around and decides humanity is in need of a major reboot, starting with extermination. Anyone who hates the Avengers has a couple of friends in the twins. And, given the little Hydra infestation problem in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” our group no longer has access to the massive government tools and technology, while Ultron is tapped into all digital data. It’s tough to come up with a bad guy who can be a credible threat to superheroes, but Ultron and the twins are scary and crazy, so they qualify. “Is this your first time intimidating?” Ultron asks with an arrogant robot sneer.

Yep, another big, big battle lies ahead, and yep, it includes a floating city and an army of robots and awesome stunts. It also involves evacuating civilians, often overlooked in superhero films. It also involves some group dynamic governance issues, as you might expect with so many Alpha males in the room. Shwarma, maybe, revels, now and then, but kumbaya, no, not even Robert’s Rules of Order or majority vote. “We don’t have time for a city hall debate,” Stark says as he doubles down on a bad decision. “I don’t want to hear a ‘man was not meant to meddle’ medley.” Perhaps only Downey could give that line the right zhuzh, but that’s why they pay him the big, big, big bucks, and he nails it.

The interaction is a treat, especially when everyone (with one notable exception) tries to lift Thor’s hammer and no one (with one notable exception) succeeds. There is sparkling banter with a refreshing Whedoneseque twist. Given the challenges of making sure at least nine lead characters get their due in dramatic arcs, quippy zingers, and superhero showmanship, it is inevitable that it will be cluttered. It is perhaps a little less inevitable that the ladies will be squeezed out, entirely off-screen Jane and Pepper dismissed with a couple of lines of dialogue about how busy and important they are, Natasha all nurturing and flirty and beauty taming the beast-ish, though she’s dynamite on a motorcycle. But his willingness to grapple with the existential dilemmas of superheroes and his ability to make those questions so much fun is what superheroes — and movies — are for.

NOTE: Stay through the beginning of the credits to find out who the villain will be in the next chapter. But you don’t need to stay after that as there is no shwarma this time.

Parents should know that this film has extended and graphic sequences of superhero peril and action-style violence with some disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some strong language, and brief crude humor.

Family discussion: How can the Avengers find better ways to resolve their conflicts? Why was Stark so wrong in his design for Ultron?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and the original comics

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3D Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel Superhero
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