Cruella

Posted on May 26, 2021 at 5:13 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, character gets drunk in response to stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-style peril and violence, murder and references to murder and attempted murders, child feels responsible for death of parent, characters are thieves and con artists
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 29, 2021

Copyright Disney 2021
“Cruella” has the same problem as “Maleficent.” Origin stories of iconic villains have to make the characters relatable enough to hold our interest but also damaged enough to lead them toward the most despicable cruelty. So it never decides whether Cruella is some sort of Jekyll and Hyde character or a “Bad Seed” struggle between nature and nurture.

“Cruella” has some pleasures, particularly the performances of the two Emmas, Stone and Thompson, as the title character and her own ultra-wicked nemesis. But it never resolves that problem, and it sits uneasily in the PG-13 space, too dark for children who are fans of the original animated film with Betty Lou Gerson as the husky-voiced Cruella or its live-action remake with Glenn Close. And it is too cartoony for most of the audience old enough to see it.

Our anti-heroine begins life as Estella, also the name of the Dickens character who is raised to be cruel by Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. But this Estella is raised by a loving, understanding single mother (Emily Beecham as Catherine), who recognizes that Estella is a bit different, and not just because of her striking hair: jet black on one half of her head and snow white on the other. The kids at school bully her, except for Anita, who becomes her friend. But Estella can’t stay out of trouble. She seems to like trouble. She gets kicked out of school, and her mother decides they should move to London. They stop on the way there so Catherine can ask an old acquaintance for some money. But she is killed in a fall, and Estella believes it is her fault. She is left with no one to care for her.

She makes it to London and meets up with a couple of Artful Dodger types, Horace and Jasper. They invite her to share their home in an abandoned building and soon they are picking pockets and, as they get older, coming up with more complicated ways to steal. But Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and when she turns 18 (now played by Stone) Jasper (Joel Fry) helps her get an entry-level job at the legendary Liberty of London, where the closest she gets to fashion is scrubbing the bathrooms. But some mishaps bring her to the attention of the country’s imperious fashion impresario, The Baroness (Emma Thompson). At first, Estella just wants to do a good job. But various developments and revelations bring out the fury and, it must be said, the megalomania and cruelty that does not necessarily make sense in the context of what we’ve seen so far but gets her where she needs to be for the original story. Cruella (as she now calls herself) goes from being somewhere between Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist to being, well, the meanest movie villain of all time.

And she has some pretty fabulous gowns along the way. The Disney design team never fails to bring their magic. And it was a very shrewd idea to set the film in the moment as the swinging London of the 60s is moving into the punk era of the 70s with a soundtrack that includes a bunch of bangers. The movie is not very good but much of it is fun to watch.

Thompson is clearly having a ball playing a character who could fit the description of the character she played in “Much Ado About Nothing,” “My Lady Disdain.” She is a kind of “Devil Wears Prada” boss known as The Baroness. (It’s not a coincidence that both films share writer Aline Brosh McKenna). The Baroness rules her fashion line with a ruthlessness that makes “Devil Wears Prada’s” Miranda Priestly look like Little Miss Muffet. (Gosh, I hope we don’t have to sit through any of their origin stories some day.) And Stone does her considerable best with a character who does not make much sense.

Many years ago, a poll of the most evil villains of all time put Cruella De Vil at the very top, ahead of Hannibal Lecter. It’s right there in her name! She wanted to murder 99 puppies to make a coat! (Dodie Smith, who wrote the charming book 101 Dalmatians, was inspired to create the character of Cruella by an actress friend who admired Smith’s Dalmatian puppies and jokingly suggested their fur would make an elegant coat.) Cruella was the most fun when that was all she was, a wealthy lady with a husky voice who wanted to make a coat out of puppy fur. What a shame that the original animated Cruella was a more vibrant character than anyone in this film.

Parents should know that this movie has some dark themes. A child sees the murder of her mother and blames herself. Orphans band together as thieves and never find homes. A character gets drunk to deal with stress. A character admits to murdering more than one person. The story includes toxic and cruel behavior.

Family discussion: If you were going to change your name, what name would you pick? Why do Jasper and Horace do what Estella tell them to? Why is Anita the only girl who is friendly to Estella?

If you like this, try: the original animated film and the book by Dodie Smith

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The Croods: A New Age

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 2:06 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril, minor injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: December 29, 2020
Copyright Dreamworks 2020

The Croods: A New Age is the sequel to the animated film about the prehistoric family is sharply funny, exciting, warm-hearted, and a great watch for the whole family.

We left the Croods at the end of the first film with Grug (Nicolas Cage) finally welcoming in a new family member, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). The family, which sleeps in a pile every night and can form a kill circle in an instant is, Grug thinks, situated as well as possible to find food and to avoid becoming food. But then the climate changes and they have to find another place to live. On the other side of a wall, they discover a kind of paradise, with plenty of food conveniently growing in rows. It is the home of the Betterman family (“emphasis on the Better“), Hope (Leslie Mann), Phil (Peter Dinklage), and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

The Bettermans, who have discovered tools and simple machines, have an elaborate tree-house, cultivated crops, and the wall, which keeps them safe. They have the concept of “privacy,” sleeping in separate rooms. They also have the concept of “rooms.” Also “windows,” and an amusing running joke is the way Grug’s son Thunk (Clark Duke) is mesmerized by the “screen” that’s just a hole in the wall.

The Bettermans are aghast at the lack of refinement of the primitive Croods and gently try to urge them to move on. Except for Guy, who they knew when he was a child. Guy is happy to be reunited with them, especially his childhood friend Dawn. He starts dressing like Phil Betterman.

We might expect Grug’s daughter Eep (Emma Stone) to be jealous of Dawn. But this movie wisely makes Eep and Dawn instant best friends in a funny and sweet scene where they discover what it means to know another girl. It also wisely does not make the Bettermans or the Croods all right or all wrong. Balancing the wish to protect your children from any possible harm with the importance of their learning to be independent and developing a sense of curiosity and adventure.

Basically, there are just two jokes here, but they are funny every time. It is funny when we see that the Croods are just like us (parents want to take care of children and children want to try new things, teenagers have a lot to say to each other but do not always have the words, girlfriends’ voices sometimes get a little screechy when they’re excited), and it is funny to see them discover for the first time in human history what we take for granted (privacy, screens). But what makes this movie worth a rewatch is the constant invention of its visuals, the exceptional detail in the characters, animals, and landscapes, its superb voice talent, and its touching depiction of the foundational ties of family and community.

Parents should know that this film includes some peril and mild injuries and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Is your family more like the Croods or The Bettermans? What would you pick for your tribal name? What is your family’s motto? Ask family members for the stories behind their scars.

If you like this, try: “The Croods,” and the “Ice Age” movies and my interview with this film’s director, Joel Crawford.

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Zombieland: Double Tap

Posted on October 17, 2019 at 5:25 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for bloody violence, language throughout, some drug and sexual content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely violent and gory zombie peril and action with many characters injured and killed and many gruesome images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019
Date Released to DVD: January 20, 2020

Copyright Columbia 2019
Start lining up the cast for part three; we’re going to need another one of these every decade or so. The original Zombieland was a brash, grimly funny story about a post-apocalyptic world in which characters who would otherwise be unlikely to meet, much less spend time together, identified only by their home towns, form a kind of family in the midst of zombie attacks. They are the high-strung but determined Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the tough, peppery cowboy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), and two survival-savvy sisters who are skeptical of anyone else, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone).

As Zombieland: Double Tap opens, the group is moving into the White House, now surrounded by fields of overgrown vegetation. It makes a good fortress and there are lots of cool things to play with, from a Twister game to Presidential portraits and gifts given by dignitaries over the years. Columbus and Wichita are a couple, but there is a problem. In this era of chaos and unpredictability, everyone has different ideas about what makes them feel safe. Columbus keeps making lists of his rules for survival (humorously displayed on screen) and wants to make the relationship official by proposing — with the Hope Diamond, which, like everything else, is up for grabs. But Wichita feels safest not having any connections, except for her sister, and Little Rock, now a teenager, wants to find someone her own age. So they leave.

On a “retail therapy” expedition to a shopping mall, Tallahassee and Columbus meet Madison (Zooey Deutch), who has been living there. Deutch just about steals the movie with one of the truly great comic performances of the year as the perfectly ditsy girl whose understanding of what is going on may be dim and who may not be willing to shoot zombies, but who has a knack for survival on her own terms. Just as she and Columbus get together, Wichita returns. Little Rock has run off with a guitar-playing pacifist named Berkeley (Avan Jogia). So, the group goes on the road to find her, running into some new characters, including many zombies, now faster, stronger, and smarter than before, an Elvis fan near Graceland, and a duo who seem uncannily parallel to Columbus and Tallahassee (Thomas Middleditch and Luke Wilson, both terrific).

Like the original, the zombie attacks and shoot-outs are punctuated with deadpan (maybe the correct term is undead-pan) humor, brilliantly delivered by the powerhouse cast. From the opening Columbia logo showing the lady using her torch to bash some zombies, the film moves briskly along with a gruesomely delightful mix of mayhem, romance, and humor. It’s a story about family, resilience, courage, and staying limber — with a great scene over the credits featuring a not-too-surprising guest star.

Parents should know that this film includes constant zombie peril and violence with many graphic, bloody, and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and alcohol and marijuana.

Family discussion: Why did Wichita say no to Columbus? What rules do you follow?

If you like this, try: the first “Zombieland” and “Sean of the Dead”

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Battle of the Sexes

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 9:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 1, 2018
Copyright Fox Searchlight

“You’ve come a long way, baby!” was the 1970’s slogan for a cigarette for women. Virginia Slims were marketed as a badge of liberation and sophistication. They had a woman’s slightly naughty-sounding name and a word with a lot of appeal to female consumers (and a suggestion that they would aid in keeping weight down). They had a kicky advertising campaign. And they were the only commercial product willing to sponsor the brand new Women’s Tennis Association, founded by tennis champion Billie Jean King to protest the pay differential in professional tennis, with women making a fraction of the prize money awarded to the men. When they raised the issue, they were told that women’s tennis was not as interesting (even though they sold as many or more tickets at the same price as the tickets to see the men play) and because the men had families to support. It may now seem absurd, or at least off-brand to have a women’s athletic competition sponsored by a cigarette, but probably no more absurd than the argument that “the men’s tennis is more exciting to watch; it’s biology.”

One-time men’s tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a bit of a sexist and more than a bit of a showman, and much more than a bit of a gambler. And so he bragged that even in his 50’s he could beat the top-ranked women’s player. Margaret Court accepted the challenge, and he triumphed in a humiliating defeat. And so, Billie Jean King agreed to play him in something between a sporting event and a three ring circus, complete with marching band, scantily dressed cheerleaders in Sugar Daddy outfits, and the ceremonial presentation by King to Riggs of an actual pig.

So, not your usual night on ESPN, which, of course, had not been invented yet. This was front-page news in the midst of the fight for what people were still calling “women’s liberation.” This was consciousness raising whether you liked it or not.

It is especially suitable that this film was directed by a female/male team: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”). They found the human story, the vulnerability, the drive, the fear, the resolve behind the hoopla and hyperbole, and they have made a film about real people that is moving and, even though we know the outcome of the game, suspenseful.

Bobby Riggs would have been a public feminist if he could make a dollar at it. (A dollar, by the way, is what the original players in King’s Women’s Tennis Association were paid to sign up.) He would cheerfully admit, except possibly to his wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue), that he was more of a showman and a huckster than an athlete. Billie Jean King was a determined, disciplined athlete at the forefront of the Gloria Steinem era of feminists. She was companionably married to Larry King (not the TV show host), but she was beginning to admit to herself that she was attracted to women. Her hairstylist, Marilyn (Andrea Reisborough), leans in and brushes her hand on Billie Jean’s cheek. The woman who never allowed herself any distractions has met a distraction she cannot ignore.

Faris and Dayton create the environment of the 70’s without any air quotes. The cinematography, the score, the deft use of Howard Cosell’s actual commentary during the match (at one point, he says approvingly that King moves like a man), evoke the era without exaggeration or snottiness. Every performance shines, including Sarah Silverman in the Eve Arden wry sidekick role. The film is generous to all of its characters, even the real and metaphorical pigs.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and an explicit situation with some nudity, issues of sexual orientation, some crude language, alcohol, cigarettes, sexism, and homophobia.

Family discussion: What is different today and what hasn’t changed? Why did Billie Jean King decide to play Bobby Riggs?

If you like this, try: Footage of the real King/Riggs game

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Trailer: Battle of the Sexes — Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs

Posted on May 16, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in “Battle of the Sexes,” the true story of the famous 1972 tennis match between women’s champion Billie Jean King and middle-ranked, middle-aged men’s player Bobby Riggs, who bragged that even someone at his level could beat any woman. Riggs, a publicity-savvy showman, had already beat Margaret Court and ramped up the intensity of his challenge with sexist comments, at the height of the Equal Rights Amendment era of the women’s movement. The movie is directed by “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

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