A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting

Posted on October 15, 2020 at 12:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended horror-style peril and violence, monsters, childnapping, no one seriously hurt
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2020

Copyright 2020 Netflix
Kids know monsters. They always have. The very earliest stories of all, even before there were movies, before there were books, before there was written language at all, when stories were just told around a campfire, there were stories about monsters. Then, as now, they were stories about how scary the monsters were, before they were defeated. Those stories, at least the ones that survived the centuries to reach us today, were just scary enough until they were reassuring. Stories about monsters were among the first way humans began to make sense of the world, and they did it by imagining a narrative that helped them think about how they would outsmart whatever terrifying challenges came their way.

The latest in this grand tradition is the terrific “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting,” based on the first book in the series by Joe Ballarini. Director Rachel Talalay knows scary — she is the only woman to have directed one of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. And she knows how to mix fantasy and fun, because she has directed seven “Dr. Who” episodes. Her film has gorgeously imagined settings, a great cast, and an exciting story that hits the exact sweet spot between funny-scary and scary-funny. Which means it is exciting, fun, and, I hope, soon to be followed by Chapter 2.

Kelly Ferguson (Tamara Smar) is a shy high school freshman (but in sophomore math) who is looking forward to a Halloween party with her friends and the boy she has not yet had the nerve to talk to. But it turns out that her mother and father are also going to a Halloween party, held by her mother’s company, and they have promised the boss that Kelly will babysit.

The boss is Mrs. Zellman (Tamsen McDonough), imperious in a spectacular Ice Queen costume. She gives Kelly a long list of don’ts for taking care of Jacob (Ian Ho of “A Simple Favor”). No sweets, no ice cream, no gluten, no dairy, no more than 30 minutes of screen time, no running, shouting, or discussing current events, and a three-hour bedtime check-list. No trick-or-treaters. And she promises to be home at midnight on the dot.

Jacob is afraid of the monsters he sees in his nightmares. Kelly reassures him that “it’s just your mind playing tricks on you. They can’t hurt you…There’s no such thing as monsters.” She says when she was his age she thought the monsters in her nightmares were real, too. But then she grew up and is scared of real-life things like inequality, climate change, and talking to the boy she likes.

And then, Jacob is kidnappped by monsters. There are three scary/silly looking (CGI) toothy Toadies, led by The Grand Guignol (“Harry Potter’s” Draco Mallfoy, Tom Felton). Jacob’s gift for creating imaginative nightmares has made him a tempting target because his dreams can help create an army of infinite nightmares to ruin the world.

Kelly is at a loss, and then Liz Larue (Oona Laurence) arrives on a motorcycle, with a baby in her backpack. She is part of a centuries-old cadre of monster-fighting babysitters. Liz and Kelly will have to track down the underground lair of The Grand Guignol, Brown University, and that party where Kelly’s friends are celebrating Halloween. It will take courage, determination, magic, and, yep, math, to get Jacob home before his mother gets back.

Production designer David Brisbin and costume designer Carrie Grace deserve special mention for the gorgeous look of this film. Each of the settings, from the Grand Guignol’s lair to the babysitter headquarters is stunning and filled with enough intriguing detail to reward repeated viewings.

The young actors are all excellent, each creating a vivid and appealing character. It is a lot of fun to see Kelly grow in confidence and courage. Liz’s matter-of-fact, business-like curtness softens when she explains how she became a monster hunting babysitter. Felton has a blast as the monstrous nightmare collector (and the requisite British accent for a truly satisfying bad guy). His slithery movements are shiver-inducing.

It is also heartening to see these young characters solve problems with intelligence, courage, and teamwork. It was especially intriguing to see babysitters from around the world called on for help, and I hope we’ll get more from them in the next chapter.

As more kids are stuck at home this year, with trick-or-treating cut back by COVID-19, “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting” is just the right movie to celebrate the year’s most happily scary holiday.

Parents should know that this is a Halloween movie about monsters with some scary images and peril, though it is punctuated by comedy and no one gets seriously hurt. There is some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Where does the name Grand Guignol come from? Look up the famous names who are listed as historic babysitters including Rosa Parks, Frida Kahlo, and Maria Tallchief. Which of the babysitters is most like you? Which one would you want to sit for you?

If you like this, try: “Goosebunps,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Spy Kids,” “Monster House,” and “The House with a Clock in its Walls”

Related Tags:

 

Based on a book Fantasy Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Stories about Teens Trailers, Previews, and Clips

The Broken Hearts Gallery

Posted on September 10, 2020 at 1:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content throughout and some crude references, strong language and drug references
Profanity: Some strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Emotional confrontations, reference to a sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: Exceptionally inclusive
Date Released to Theaters: September 11, 2020

Copyright 2020 TriStar Pictures
Maybe it’s my pandemic brain, but I found “The Broken Hearts Gallery” the most delightful romantic comedy in a long time, and I can’t wait to see it again. For all those who have been decrying the end of the romantic comedy because it is just too hard to come up with reasons to keep the lovers apart, let me make this Exhibit A for the defense. It turns out to be very simple. All you need is actors with enormous magnetism and chemistry, some banter that goes snap, crackle, and pop, a couple of misunderstandings and miscommunications, the all-important apology, and of course, spoiler alert, the happy ending. “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” written and directed by “Gossip Girl’s” Natalie Krinsky, is as refreshing and delicious as an ice cream cone on a hot day.

All credit to Krinsky, but the heart of this movie in every way is the adorable Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers,” “Bad Education”) as Lucy, who is every bit as endearing as any of the queens of romantic comedies from Doris Day to Meg Ryan and all of the various Jennifers and Jessicas with quippy best friends usually played by Judy Greer. Speaking of the essential role of the quippy best friends, A+ for the two in this film, played by powerhouses-who-deserve-their-own romantic comedies, “Hamilton’s” Phillipa Soo and “Booksmart’s” Molly Gordon as Lucy’s BFFs, support system, and Greek chorus.

Lucy has two passions. The first is art, especially the not-yet-discovered artists with something new to bring to the world. She has a low-level job in a high-level art gallery owned by a “Devil Wears Prada”-style terrifying boss lady, the film’s only under-written character and her name is too-on-the-nose Eva Woolf for goodness sakes. On the considerable other hand, she is played by Broadway legend Bernadette Peters. Lucy’s other passion is holding on to mementos and artifacts of failed relationships, which are more important to her than the relationships themselves. When she loses her current boyfriend, a colleague in the gallery (Utkarsh Ambudkar as Max) and her job in the same #epicfail, she tipsily climbs into a car she mistakes for a Lyft, the handsome guy who owns the car (Dacre Montgomery as Nick) decides to drive her home, and we can check off “meet cute” on our romantic comedy bingo card. Other boxes are checked off nicely, too as the couple bicker, develop grudging respect and then affection as they accomplish something together, get close, get less close, and then, well you know. Plus karaoke, exes, and, of course, wandering through an open market.

Here is what is not on the bingo card but should be from now on: like “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” this movie is casually, un-self-consciously, and joyfully inclusive in a way that feels bountiful, generous, and heart-warming. Krinsky does not waste time worrying about whether related characters look like they share DNA or have names to match their ethnicity, or whether a romantic comedy lead should be blonde and blue-eyed and size 00, and that allows us the luxury of freedom not to worry about it either. Romantic comedies may be aspirational with a dream of perfect understanding and intimacy and witty dialogue, but this one is understatedly aspirational on a whole other level.

Just as revolutionary, this movie gives us a romantic comedy heroine who is not insecure and clutzy. Lucy has issues but she also has confidence and a sense of where she is going. She is coping with loss in some ways that are more constructive than others, like everyone else, but understanding that is what life and movies are all about.

Nick is trying to open a boutique hotel, still under construction and running out of money. He impulsively hangs one of Lucy’s mementos, Max’s tie, on a nail and that inspires her to create the title art installation, which becomes hugely popular, and hugely cathartic for the broken-hearted people who come by to share their stories. The loss of a love is, Lucy says, the loneliest feeling. Sharing the story makes it less lonely. So does a charming romantic comedy that opens up all kinds of new possibilities, including looking for more from its talented writer/director and cast.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and explicit sexual references that might earn an R if it were not a comedy. Characters drink and get tipsy and there is a drug reference.

Family discussion: What mementos are meaningful to you and why? What art installation can you create?

If you like this, try: “The Personal History of David Copperfield”

Related Tags:

 

Comedy movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Race and Diversity Romance

Just Mercy

Posted on January 9, 2020 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets
Profanity: Strong language including n-word and other racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to violent crimes, non-explicit depiction of an execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 10, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 13, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2019

The third 2019 awards season story based on a real-life lawyer stars producer Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Legacy Museum (sometimes referred to as the Lynching Museum) and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The movie shows him as a young graduate of Harvard Law School who moved to the small town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Lee’s Atticus Finch, Stevenson defends those who were unfairly accused. He established the Equal Justice Initiative. The only other staff was a local woman named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Stevenson began helping men on death row at no cost.

The local community, especially law enforcement, did not like having old cases re-opened and weaknesses of evidence and exposed. The hostility and obstruction seemed insurmountable. But Stevenson was undaunted. Unlike most heroic lawyers in movies (and real life), this story does not have family members complaining that he is working too hard or a love interest who feels neglected. Stevenson does not lose his temper or feel like giving up. The great gift of this movie is what sometimes, if you are not watching carefully, may make it seem like its pilot light is turned down too low. This movie does have some rousing moments (and some sad ones) but it does not follow the usual courtroom underdog stories that make the intricacies of the judicial system follow the beats of a feel-good sports story.

Jordan is that rare performer who is a superb actor and a full-on movie star. After his electrifying appearance in “Black Panther,” he shows his range as a lawyer whose only superpowers are his integrity and his constant courtesy toward everyone he deals with. client, friend, and foe. The quiet power of the respect he shows to his clients is critical to gaining their trust and to restoring their sense of dignity in a system that has done its best to take it from them. And it is wisely given as much weight here as any revelation of evidence or legal right left out of the original proceedings.

Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton also treats Stevenson’s clients with respect, with an outstanding performance by Jamie Foxx as Stevenson’s first significant client. It’s a quieter role than we have seen him in for a while, and his subtle work here is extraordinary, telling us the whole history of a man who has never been able to expect fairness for himself or his family. Rob Morgan plays another prisoner, performed with heartwrenching simplicity and delicacy to bring home to us what brought Stevenson to devote his life to this cause.

Parents should know that this movie concerns men on death row and abuses of the justice system. It includes some strong language, including racist epithets, and references to sexual assault and violent crime an a non-explicit depiction of an execution.

Family discussion: Why was it important for Stevenson to address his clients and their families as Mr. and Mrs.? What kept him from giving up?

If you like this, try: Bryan Stevenson’s book and TED Talk, and documentary

Related Tags:

 

Based on a book Based on a true story Courtroom Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- format Race and Diversity

Miss Bala

Posted on January 31, 2019 at 5:33 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended crime and law enforcement-related peril and violence, guns and shoot-outs, knives, bombs, rape, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 29, 2019

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
Miss Bala” is a serviceable action thriller but very much the Hollywood version. In real life, a beauty queen named Laura Zúñiga (her title was “Our Sinaloa Beauty”) was arrested with seven members of a Mexican drug and weapons crime operation. Her story became a Mexican film, also called Miss Bala, which portrayed her as a kidnap victim, forced to work with the La Estrella gang to protect her family.

The American remake is closer to Pam Grier’s “Foxy Brown” or Tarantino’s “Death Proof” than to the real story, where the beauty queen did not fire a gun in stilettos and a red evening gown with a slit up the leg. The woman in the dress is “Jane the Virgin‘s” stars Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a makeup artist from California, an American citizen who returns to her original home in Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) look her best in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Gloria loves Suzu and her little brother Chava (Sebastián Cano), who are the closest she has to a family. And Suzu seems to be missing some red flags about the pageant, unconcerned about rumors that the local sheriff insists on droit de seigneur privileges with each year’s winner. A pre-competition party is interrupted by a shoot-out. Gloria is almost killed, but won’t take her opportunity to get away because she stays to look for Suzu. She tells a man in uniform that she can identify the killers, but he turns out to be working for them. He takes her to the leader of the group, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who tells her that if she helps them, he will find Suzu for her.

So Gloria finds herself getting more and more caught up in the terrifying world of warring drug dealers. At first, she is a numb patsy who follows Lino’s directions to park a car by a building, but then it turns out it was packed with a bomb and used to blow up a safe house operated by the US DEA. Desperate to find Suzu and protect Chava, the follows his orders, transporting drugs and cash across the border into California and bringing back guns. The DEA brings her in and threatens her with prison or worse if she does not cooperate. The pressure is intense and the consequences are immeasurably tragic. Lino is suspicious, but also drawn to Gloria, because he, too, has been considered too Mexican to be American and too American to be Mexican. Gloria has to try to navigate between fear and something approaching loyalty while keeping in mind the single driving force of her commitment to rescuing Suzu.

Rodriguez has said in interviews that she insisted on giving Gloria more agency, making her more active, doing whatever a male character in those situations would do, all of which is salutary, but it goes so far it becomes cartoonish.

Almost everyone who worked on this film on screen and off is Latinx, which is also salutary, though the fact that the first major studio film to make that a goal has to be about the most obvious possible stereotype of Latinx characters.

Parents should know that this is a close-to-R PG-13, with themes of sex and drug trafficking, intense peril and violence, guns, knives, bombs, shoot-outs, many characters injured and killed, rape (off-camera), and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Gloria decide what to do in the parking lot? What do you think she will do next?

If you like this, try: the original Spanish-language version of the story with the same title, and “2 Fast 2 Furious”

Related Tags:

 

Action/Adventure Crime DVD/Blu-Ray Inspired by a true story movie review Movies -- Reviews Remake

Isle of Dogs

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:33 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Dog and human peril and violence, murder, sad death of parents, child injured badly, medical procedures, starvation and disease, skeletons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Issue of white American as the only one who takes on the villain
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: July 16, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018

Say the title out loud. “Isle of Dogs” = “I love dogs,” get it? Even a three-word title of a Wes Anderson movie is a bit of a puzzle box. Anderson is the Joseph Cornell of filmmakers, with every item on screen and even those tucked away and not seen by the audience, every note on the soundtrack, meticulously assembled. It makes sense that this film is set in a fictional version of Japan because his movies are cinematic Bento boxes. Anderson’s most ardent fans love the understated drama and endless unpacking of detail and think there is a deeper meaning in the weirdness. I am less persuaded that there is always a deeper meaning, but I enjoy the singular peculiarity of his storytelling.

Like my favorite Anderson movie, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Isle of Dogs” is a story of talking animals told via stop-motion animation. This is a vastly more ambitious undertaking, based on an original story by Anderson with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, who appeared in Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” and also served as a casting director for this film and provided the voice for the movie’s bad guy.

Anderson’s intricate vision makes for exceptional world-building, and in this film he imagines a Japan 20 years from now, when political and environmental decay has progressed significantly but is seen as normal by the population. Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) is the mayor of the (fictional) coastal metropolis called Megasaki City. He persuades the population that dogs are a pestilential force, bringing disease (“snout fever” and “dog flu”) to the city, and decrees that all dogs, even the beloved guard dog of his adopted son Atari (Koyu Rankin), must be deported to a nearby “island” made up of trash. The starving, diseased, homesick dogs have a bleak existence on the island. And then Atari arrives, in an airplane, in search of his beloved Spots. And a teenage American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) starts to investigate, with one of those old-school evidence walls covered with clues linked together by red yarn. Anderson’s worst and most tone-deaf choice here is to make the one white, American human character the only one with any integrity and ability to resolve the crimes against the dogs and community.

As in all Anderson films, the human characters deliver their lines in deadpan even while experiencing cataclysmic loss, urgent action, or ardent emotion. What some audiences experience as whimsical, charming, and witty, others see as cloying, twee, or claustrophobic. But he is a marvel at world-building and here, as in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” where the entire film is essentially a set of dollhouses over which he has complete control, he is at his best. The settings in this film are an astonishing achievement of imagination and skill, from the tears welling up in the eyes of a dog to the intricacy of the machinery. If he ever devotes as much attention to the humanity of his characters as he does to the brilliance of his props, he will no longer be admired primarily for his singular aesthetic vision but for his characters and stories.

Parents should know that this film includes diseased and starving animals, children and adults in peril, murder, death of parents, child injured badly, dog fights with animals injured and killed, skeletons, some disturbing images including surgery, brief strong language, and references to dogs mating.

Family discussion: Why were the dogs banned? Why was it important for them to vote on big decisions?

If you like this, try: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Related Tags:

 

Animation DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Talking animals
THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2024, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at Rogerebert.com, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik