Missing Link

Posted on April 11, 2019 at 5:14 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some mild rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 12, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 22, 2019
Copyright 2019 LAIKA Studios

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”

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Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy movie review Movies -- format

The Greatest Showman

Posted on December 20, 2017 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including fights and mob threats, fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 20, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 9, 2018
Amazon.com ASIN: B077R32LVQ
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

I am in no way dissing “The Greatest Showman” by saying that when it is available on DVD and streaming it is destined, even designed to be popular for sing-alongs at middle school slumber parties. Or that it is a good old-fashioned movie musical to take the whole family to, including grandparents and grandchildren, over the holidays. “The Greatest Showman” is differences-make-us-great personal empowerment tuneful fantasy inspired by impresario P.T. Barnum, who revolutionized entertainment flavored with unabashed hucksterism in the 19th century.

This highly romanticized and simplified version of PT Barnum’s life has the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) the son of a poor tailor, very much in love with the daughter of his father’s wealthy customer. She is sent away to boarding school and he is left an orphan and has to survive on the streets, but they write to each other (an “I wish” musical number, of course) and when they grow up, he returns to her family’s mansion so they can get married. Her father warns that she will be back.

At first, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) are poor but very happy and devoted to their two daughters. But Barnum loses his desk job and has to come up with some new way to support his family. To get a loan from the bank he presents documentation that falls somewhere between exaggeration and outright fraud, then uses the money to rent a warehouse and sets up a series of exhibits.

No one comes to see it.

And so, inspired by his daughter, he decides to add “unusual” people to the displays. Attitudes toward disabilities and differences were very different almost 200 years ago, and many people who were unusual — little people, women with facial hair, people with albinism, conjoined twins — had no opportunities for school or jobs and were abandoned or hidden by their families. In the world of this movie, handled with as much delicacy as is possible in the context of a big, brassy musical, Barnum tells them they were beautiful and promises to make them stars. If there are echoes here of the unforgettably eerie “we accept her, one of us” in “Freaks,” consider this a refutation, not repetition. At one point, when Barnum is successful, he wavers, not wanting his circus “family” to mingle with the society patrons. But he rejects Charity’s society family as well. And the circus performers remind him that once they recognized their beauty, he cannot take that away from them with the stirring anthem, “This is Me.”

And really, and appropriately given the subject matter, it’s the stirring anthems and the pageantry that this movie is about, not the melodrama of its thin storyline. Barnum tours with his star, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), straining his marriage. Barnum has a partner (Zac Efron), who falls for an African-American performer (a radiant Zendaya–can’t wait to see more from her in the next “Spider-Man” movie), straining his relationship with his family. And there are those in the community who are offended by Barnum’s performers.

But it’s just part of the show, there to give everyone a chance to sing and dance, with songs from the young Oscar and Tony Award-winning team from “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hanson.” There’s no attempt to be true to the period; another reminder we’re just here to have some fun, the closest most of us will ever get to running away to the circus.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, family tension and drama, sad loss of a father, bullies, a scary fire, a brawl, and a racist remark.

Family discussion: Would you buy a ticket to see a Barnum show? What would you want to see? How would his show be different today?

If you like this, try: “The Great Houdini” and “Moulin Rouge”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week


Posted on March 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic peril and violence with many disturbing and bloody images, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 3, 2017

Copyright Fox 2017
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017
A lot of Wolverine fans love the elegaic final chapter, “Logan,” but I do not. Perhaps if you are deep in the weeds of the MCU, you will see meaning and closure in “Logan,” but for me, even as a Comic-Con-attending fangirl, it was slow and depressing, and not in a good way.

Wolverine fans know that he is a loner, only intermittently joining forces with the X-Men, and his stories often show the influence of classic western sagas. “Logan” is set in the west, and its dry, dusty terrain fits the somber tone of the story. Logan/Wolverine is old and tired. His legendary powers of healing are slowing, and so is he. He and Caliban (Stephen Merchant, looking like Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family”) are caring for Professor Xavier, who is also losing his powers and near the end of his life. The time of the X-Men seems to be ending, too. No new mutants have appeared.

Or, so everyone thought. Logan is threatened by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who says he is looking for a woman who is looking for Logan. And she finds him, and offers to pay Logan a lot of money to transport a little girl to the Canadian border. He does not want to do it, but he needs the money to take care of Professor X, and when the woman is murdered, he feels that he has no choice.

Professor X, who struggles with dementia, keeps insisting that the girl has some special qualities, but Logan refuses to believe him…until the tough guys show up and she dispatches them with some very familiar-looking adamantine claws that pop out from her knuckles. Time for a road trip, including an encounter with a sweet farm family and with many perils and threats along the way.

The action is well-staged, though brutal even by comic book movie standards. Jackman and Stewart are always watchable, but the story drags (the movie is well over two hours), and we know where it’s going at every step. One big plot point has to do with Logan’s belief that the story in the comic books cannot be true. He may be persuaded otherwise, but we never are.

Parents should know that this film includes constant and very graphic comic-book/sci-fi peril and violence with many disturbing images and many characters injured and killed, and brief non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: How does this movie show the influence of classic westerns? Why does Caliban stay loyal?

If you like this, try: the previous Wolverine and X-Men films

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Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Movies -- format Science-Fiction Series/Sequel

Eddie the Eagle

Posted on February 25, 2016 at 5:28 pm

Copyright 2016 20th Century Fox
Copyright 2016 20th Century Fox

There are heroes who inspire us because they win, showing indomitable determination and courage, like Jesse Owens in Race. And then there are heroes who inspire us when they lose. They also have indomitable determination and courage. They just do not have any talent. But they go farther than anyone thinks they can. Think of “Rudy,” or “Cool Runnings,” or even the original “Rocky” movie. And now add Eddie the Eagle. He was a sickly boy with a dream of competing in the Olympics. When he was bumped from the British ski team, partly for being clumsy and lower class (at least in this film), he switches to ski jumping. There is one advantage: Great Britain does not have a ski jump team and has not competed in the event in 60 years. The rules had not been updated since then, so, unbelievably, anyone who competed successfully (meaning jumped without falling) could qualify. And since no one else was trying, all Eddie had to do was enter one competition and land on his feet.

The bad news was that he had to land on his feet after skiing down a 70 meter slide.

The real Eddie won hearts with his unpretentiousness and enthusiasm, the nickname dubbed in response to his waving his arms in glee and relief after making it down from the jump in one piece. He was refreshing in an era of product-izd athletes groomed from elementary school for endorsement deals and “Up Close and Personal” segments. At the end of the Games, he was the only athlete mentioned in the final speach, singled out for “soaring like an eagle.”

So it is too bad that the movie does something the real Eddie never did — it cheats. It does not trust the real story or the audience. So with the excuse of an “inspired by” credit rather than a “based on” implication of sticking closer to reality, it insists on amping up the ante with schmaltzy/cutesy made-up characters and events. Hugh Jackman brings tons of charm to the fictitious character of an angry, bitter guy who was once on the American ski jump team but got booted for drinking, women, and a bad attitude. Of course he will be inspired by Eddie’s unsullied determination and good attitude. Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service” and the forthcoming “Robin Hood: Origins”) makes Eddie believably awkward, but the character is nearly infantilized, limited to such a narrow range of qualities and emotions. The big showpiece athletic feat is amped up as well, when just the actual fact of climbing up 30 stories and sliding down it on two little sticks should be plenty.

Parents should know that this film includes illness and sport-related peril and injury, some sexual references, brief non-sexual nudity, smoking, alcohol abuse, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What made Eddie’s goals for himself reasonable ones? Why did Bronson decide to help him? How did helping Eddie change the way Bronson thought about himself?

If you like this, try: “Cool Runnings” and “Rudy”

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Biography Inspired by a true story Sports


Posted on March 5, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2015
Date Released to DVD: June 15, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00UC9SOKW
Copyright Sony 2015
Copyright Sony 2015

So, basically, no one here saw “Terminator.” Or “Frankenstein.” But maybe they did see “Robocop?” Or “Short Circuit?”

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp likes sci-fi allegories of social and political conflicts, as we saw in “District 9” and “Elysium.” Here he imagines that a couple of years from now South Africa will replace most of its front-line police force with robots from a government contractor. Efficient and just about unstoppable, they bring the crime rate down substantially. They are trusted by the law-abiding population and feared by the criminals. The CEO of the contractor is Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), who has turned down requests from two of her staff. Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) wants to develop artificial intelligence to see if he can create a form of mechanical consciousness. Counter to his Athenian dreams of a holistic robot spirit that can create poetry and assess the merits of works of art, there is the Spartan, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), whose pet project is a super-powerful weapon called Moose that is all brawn and no brain. It operates entirely under human control, through a helmet that reads its operator’s thoughts. One dreams of heart and brains, one believes in brawn and firepower.

Michelle reminds them that she is CEO of a publicly traded weapons corporation. Her job is to provide powerful but obedient robot foot soldiers to the police force, not to explore existential questions or create military-force destructive capacity.

In brief opening scene set a year before the events of the film, a journalist explains, “Historically, when we look at evolution, it’s not surprising that Chappie’s left turn happened.” So we know from the beginning that Chappie will be a major turning point in human history. Then we go back to see how he is created, as Deon takes a discarded robot with an unreplaceable fused battery that has just five days before it will run down and brings the not-so-failsafe guard key card from the office to his apartment (where of course he has created a cute little wall-eyed home robot with decorative red glasses). He revs up on Redbull and slams down some bangin’ code to, you know, play God.

Just to make it clear, he introduces himself to the robot, who will be dubbed Chappie, as his maker. And just to show you how human sentient consciousness, at least as conceived by human screenwriters, will inevitably be, Chappie’s relationship to his creator is more conflicted than his relationship to the couple he sees as his mommy and daddy. These underground, off the grid, self-styled gangsta characters share the names of the performers who play the roles, Ninja and Yo-Landi (rappers from Die Antwoord) and “America” (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who live in an abandoned building covered with graffiti.

Chappie is caught in a tug of war between the idealistic Deon, who sees him as having infinite possibilities beyond the capacities of humans, and the gangstas, who see him as the key to bigger and better ways to create mayhem and steal cars and money. Deon makes him promise never to commit a crime. But Ninja covers him in bling and promises him a new body before the battery dies.

Blomkamp’s ambition is admirable and the broad scope of his imagination is impressive. The action scenes are vividly staged and the special effects are superb. It is Chappie’s movement that makes him seem human as much as his curiosity and spirit. seeing him gently stroke a dog’s back is so endearing we barely stop to consider whether his “hands” have the sensory capacity to “feel” the softness of the fur or the warmth underneath. When a human character transitions to robot form, the fact that his voice transitions as well makes no sense as a matter of mechanics, but this is more allegory than science. Unfortunately, the fact that the robot is more human than the humans is, to put it in computing terms, a bug, not a feature.

Parents should know that this film has constant very strong language and intense and graphic violence with some disturbing images and many characters injured and killed, as well as drinking, drugs, and brief nudity.

Family discussion: If you had the chance to upload your consciousness to a robot, would you do it? Could robot police ever work? How did Chappie’s innocence affect the people around him?

If you like this, try: “District 9” and “Elysium,” from the same director

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DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Science-Fiction
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