Think Like a Dog

Posted on June 10, 2020 at 8:26 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude and suggestive material
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Low-key peril, chase scenes, marital estrangement
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2020
Copyright 2020 Lionsgate

As the title “Think Like a Dog” suggests, this family friendly fantasy from writer/director Gil Junger is a welcome throwback to Disney live-action fantasy classics like “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.” A very likable Gabriel Batemen plays Oliver, a young science whiz who invents a contraption that allows him to hear what his beloved dog Henry is thinking. As he tries to figure out a way to talk to the girl he has a crush on and remind his parents how much they care about each other, Henry helps with support and advice. Meanwhile, there are adults who are very interested in Gabriel’s technology, including a charismatic high-tech billionaire and the US government.

Oliver’s parents, Lukas (Josh Duhamel) and Ellen (Megan Fox), are devoted to him but are having a hard time communicating with each other. They do their best to hide from Oliver that they are considering a separation. Oliver is so busy with his invention for the school’s science fair that he does not notice. With the help of a friend half a world away in China (Neo Hooo as Xiao), he figures out a way to access a government satellite to get the signal he needs to make it work.

The special guest at the science fair is a charismatic Silicon Valley superstar known as Mr. Mills, played by Kunal Nayyar, as a very different kind of super-brianiac than the one he played on “The Big Bang Theory.” Oliver wants to make a good impression on Mr. Mills and on his crush, Sophie (Madison Horcher), but his demonstration fails. Disconsolate back at home, he is comforted by Henry, and then accidentally discovers that his contraption actually works — on Henry!

As Mr. Mills tries to steal Oliver’s invention and government agents try to track down whoever is hacking the satellite, Henry advises him on talking to Sophie and gently urges him to pay attention to his parents so he can help them remember to pay attention to each other.

There’s a lot more going on here, including a school play (Oliver plays Romeo!) and a bully, and some of Henry’s canine friends and rivals. Writer/director Gil Junger keeps things moving briskly, with just the right balance of action, humor, and heart.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of parents considering a separation, and may need to talk to children about how it is not always possible to resolve differences and stay together — and not the responsibility of children to keep them together. They may also want to talk about cybersecurity. This film includes some schoolyard language, potty humor, and some chases and mild peril.

Family discussion: If you could hear your pet’s thoughts, what do you think they would be? Whose thoughts would you like to hear? Who would you like to hear your thoughts? Why did Mr. Mills want the device? Why is Henry so confident?

If you like this, try: “Clockstoppers,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “A Dog’s Way Home” And read my interview with dog trainer Sarah Clifford.

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April O’Neil: Feminist Progress or Passive Object?

Posted on August 13, 2014 at 8:00 am

Photo by David Lee - © MMXIV - Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Photo by David Lee – © MMXIV – Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Could it be possible that Megan Fox as April O’Neil is the strongest heroine in any of the big summer blockbusters? Despite the title, April is in many ways the main character in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The film starts out focusing on her story as an intrepid would-be investigative reporter frustrated by the low expectations of her bosses (including Whoopi Goldberg) as she bravely pursues the big story. She continues to show courage and integrity throughout. Amanda Hess writes on Slate:

Yes, the new movie is truly awful, but the gender politics, at least, have improved.

When Megan Fox was cast as April, Laird complained that there were “hundreds of better choices for the role.” But Fox—the actress Bay previously hired to play an animated wet dream in his Transformers movies, then fired for being too sassy—is actually perfectly cast as a woman who’s long been dismissed as just a pretty face, and is itching to step into a more challenging role. In this iteration, April still ultimately chooses to team up with the ninja turtles instead of exposing them to make her name as a serious journalist. But this time, the movie actually writes April her own superheroine backstory (as a little girl, April bravely saved the mutant baby turtles that later grew into ninja teens) and gives her a real motivation for compromising her career (she does it, naturally, to avenge her father’s death). Along the way, she’s allowed to push some big buttons, flip some important levers, and drop-kick some evil villains as she fights alongside the turtles to defeat a corporate terrorist hell-bent on chemically attacking New York City in order to secure some government grants. It’s all incredibly stupid. But at least it’s equally stupid for girls and boys.

On the other hand, my friend Sandie Angulo Chen wrote in her insightful Washington Post review:

Although the character of April was attractive in earlier “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” iterations, it’s disappointing (if predictable) that she’s overly sexualized in this installment. Mikey (Noel Fisher), he of the aroused carapace, is supposed to be smitten, but must he talk only about her hotness? Meanwhile, April’s loyal cameraman, Vern (Will Arnett), is perpetually ogling her body — even in moments of extreme peril. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by such fare from producer Michael Bay, but the character — not to mention young viewers of this Nickelodeon co-production — deserve better…Unfortunately, even during crowd-pleasing thrills, the comic relief once again circles back to the script’s favorite topic: April’s sex appeal. “Yes, that’s good,” Vern says, leering as she attempts a daredevil pose in a moving car.

Fiona Duncan looks at this version of April in the context of the previous Turtle Tales.

“We took the archetype of April O’Neil,” says Liebesman, “the damsel in distress, and really molded it specifically to Megan… April is a character with a lot to prove. She’s beautiful but everyone doubts her, so we needed an actress who could literally give that sense that there’s far more there than meets the eye.” His latter claim fails in this film, as there’s not a single scene where there’s not a big deal made out of Fox’s hotness. Hotness is the butt of every April joke, including a couple, well, on her butt.

The most feminist (as in, most believable as a human) April was Judith Hoag in the 1990, first live-action Ninja Turtle film. HOAG’S APRIL was smart, determined, and permed like an Adrian Lyne working woman; sometimes sexy, but not always. Predictably, Hoag was replaced by a more bubbly actress in the sequel (Paige Turco). “That was New Line’s call,” Hoag recently commented.

Looking at all the Aprils, we time travel through, not a history of American women or feminism, but of American entertainment media, including Hollywood’s move to fantastical franchises. April O’Neil is a damsel in distress now that she’s bound to Banal-lywood, which is distressing (Fox is a far cry from the independent arguably woman of color O’Neil started as), but what else is new?

They’re all right. I was glad to see April showing some spirit in this film, but sorry to see that one of the many disappointments of the film was the way that Liebesman and producer Michael Bay tried to have it both ways, with April asking for respect but the men making the film not willing to give Megan Fox any.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Posted on August 7, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Copyright 2014 Paramount StudiosDear Michael Bay,
Just because you were able to turn one Saturday cartoon series for children into a PG-13 blockbuster, based on nostalgia on the part of its now-teen and 20-something audience and some world class special effects, does not mean that you can do the same with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is less “Transformer” and more “Yogi Bear” or “Scooby-Doo.” In other words, step away from “Shirt Tales” and “The Wuzzles.” Please, just stop. Sincerely, The Movie Mom

Before it wore or, or, more accurately, wore down its welcome, the original “Transformers” was a refreshing surprise that kept the spirit of the original series.  But even as a cartoon show, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were meta and self-referential and cutesy.  I mean, just look at the concept: they’re turtles.  And ninjas.  And teenagers.  You can blow them up into CGI behemoths, but they still can’t make a movie work, even by bringing back the original star of the first “Transformers” movie, Megan Fox.

Fox plays April O’Neil, a would-be investigative reporter relegated by her condescending colleagues to cutesy stories like exercising on mini-trampolines in Times Square.  She would much rather be reporting on a powerful and merciless gang of criminals known as the Foot Clan.  No one believes her when she says she saw a super-strong vigilante in the shadows, fighting the Foot Clan, including her editor (a “what is she doing in this movie?” Whoopi Goldberg).  It turns out she has a connection to this mysterious crime-fighter.  Her father was a scientist who died in a tragic lab accident as he was working on a special strength-giving serum by injecting it into four young turtles.  The night the lab burned down, April rescued the turtles and a rat by letting them escape into the sewer.

A handy martial arts manual found in the sewer gives the rat, known as Splinter (voice of “Monk’s” Tony Shaloub) the chance to train the young turtles, and the effects of the injections make them grow up to be large, muscular, and able to stand upright.  Each of the four has a different color mask and a Smurf-like individual personality quirk.  But they all love pizza.

The action scenes are well-staged, especially a snowy chase scene, though I have no idea where the snow came from as we only see snow outside the city.  But the script is lame and the violence is too intense for anyone old enough to be interested.  A slumming William Fitchner plays an industrialist who is not as philanthropic as he seems. And the scenes with an even-more slumming Will Arnett (what happened to his career?), whose two functions are to drive April around and be generally skeezy about his interest in her, are just painful.  April strives to be taken seriously as a journalist.  Fox, sadly, fails to be taken seriously as an actress (which she really is — see “This is 40”).

And the title characters are under-used as well.  For a movie about the TMNTs, they just don’t have enough to do beyond loving pizza and kicking bad guys. Whatever charm existed in the original cartoons is trampled by this over-blown bore.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon-style action, peril, and violence, sad off-screen death of a parent, some brief disturbing images, some crude humor and a brief potty joke.

Family discussion: Why didn’t anyone take April seriously? Which turtle is your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: the TMNT cartoon series and the earlier films

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This is 40

Posted on December 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Writer-director Judd Apatow has made the mistake of believing that the audience will find his wife and children and mid-life crisis as relatable and endearing as he does. And there is nothing more fatal to a movie than a gross miscalculation about the appeal of its characters. It’s fine to make a movie about unpleasant people as long as the movie knows they are unpleasant. But this movie asks us to care about the concerns of people who care very little for anything but the most superficial and selfish problems, with no sense at all of how shallow and unappealing they are.

Apatow’s mega-successful “Knocked Up” was the story of a successful professional woman who became pregnant after a one-night stand with a man who was neither successful nor professional.  The pregnant woman’s sister Debbie (Apatow’s real-life spouse Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) provided a comedic counterpoint, coping with marital stress, including two children, played by Apatow and Mann’s real-life children.  In one scene, Debbie and her sister are not permitted into a club because Debbie is too old and her sister is pregnant.  Debbie is devastated by the loss of this important validation.  Debbie is shrill and demanding, constantly blaming her husband.  In one big plot twist, it turns out that the secret he had been hiding from her was not an affair but a fantasy sports group he liked to escape to.

“This is 40” continues the story of Pete and Debbie.  She is still shrill and demanding, still constantly blaming her husband, and still pretty much on board with the idea that her self-worth depends on being attractive to strangers in hot clubs.  In the opening scene, the week of both Pete’s and Debbie’s 40th birthdays, they are having very enthusiastic sex in the shower when he reveals that his performance has been enhanced with medication.  Instead of expressing concern or sympathy or support, she interprets this as evidence that she is no longer as attractive as she was when she was younger.  She whines to her personal trainer (Apatow regular Jason Segal) that she is failing to arouse men and he consoles her by saying that she arouses him.

Debbie insists that she and Pete embark on a course of self-improvement that involves graphic depictions of a mammogram and a colonoscopy, and a lot of resolutions about eating better and unplugging the kids from the internet.  It does not, however, involve any expressions of generosity, humility, compassion, responsibility, or maturity.  Pete and Debbie are aggrieved by the remoteness (her) and dependence (his) of their fathers, but they are not doing much better as parents.  I have a sinking feeling that there will a a future sequel for the girls to work out their issues with their parents.

The movie is overlong and saggy, swooping almost randomly from set-piece scene to set-piece scene, and yet it is all supposed to take place in about one week.  This continually undercuts any sense of forward momentum and Apatow stuffs his films with so many of his friends that we keep having to be reminded of who all the characters are.  And then when we are reminded, we are disappointed all over again.  Segal, Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Charlene Yi and Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) are all trotted out for short bits and some are quite funny (be sure to stay for McCarthy’s outtakes during the credits).  And Megan Fox is a standout as an impossibly hot and possibly larcenous employee in Debbie’s boutique.  This is Fox’s second top-notch performance this year, following “Friends With Kids” — take that, Michael Bay.  There is even an occasional flash of understanding of the challenges of marriage and getting older, as when Pete and Debbie try (but not very hard) to use obviously therapy-inspired tactics for expressing their complaints and disappointments.

But that is not enough to make up for the  inert plotline and unappealing characters.  For a guy who seems to think about nothing more than the travails of self-absorbed people suffering from arrested development, Apatow has failed to learn that the issue is not growing old — it is growing up.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely graphic and explicit sexual references and situations including fertility issues and an “escort,” constant very strong language, drinking, marijuana, some mild violence (no one badly hurt), family stress, and stealing.

Family discussion:  What do we learn about Pete and Debbie from their relationships with their fathers?  Why was staying young so important to Debbie?
If you like this, try: “Knocked Up” (featuring the same characters) and “The 40 Year Old Virgin”
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Comedy Drama Family Issues Series/Sequel
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