Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom

Posted on December 21, 2023 at 2:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and sci-fi violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Beer
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book style fantasy action, some disturbing images of characters getting burned and stabbed, zombie-like characters, monsters
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2023

Copyright WB 2023
I get the feeling everyone was just calling it in on this one. The DCCU is getting a makeover under James Gunn and Peter Safran and who knows what will happen given the prospect of the catastrophic leadership of David Zaslav burying his bad decisions and collecting a huge paycheck with a possible sale of Warner-Discovery to Paramount. And Jason Mamoa already made it clear this was his last Aquaman movie. Whether the behind-the-scenes is the reason for this lackluster, derivative entry in the DC Cinematic Universe or not, the movie is a wait-for-streaming for all but the most devoted fans.

In our last episode, Aquaman (Momoa) killed a pirate named Jesse Kane, and his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) vows to kill Aquaman in revenge. And Aquaman seizes control of the underwater kingdom from his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson). An extra scene in the credits has David Kane joining forces with marine scientist Stephen Shin (Randall Park), who promises to help David get his revenge if David will help him find the lost kingdom under the sea.

We pick up a few years later, where, in the first of a series of clangingly obvious foreshadowing signals, Arthur/Aquaman is now married to Mera (Amber Heard) and he tells us the most important thing in the world to him is their baby son, Junior. Aquaman divides his time between his home at the shore, with his human father, Tom (Temuera Morrison) helping to care for Junior, and his undersea kingdom. He is often frustrated with the bureaucracy of the kingdom’s council. And he is very concerned about the land countries destroying the environment, but, with his kingdom’s long history of secrecy, he cannot reach out to the upper world.

David has found the lost kingdom and the source of immense evil power in the black trident. A frozen spirit who looks like a cross between Groot and the Green Goblin says he will give that power to David if he will bring him the descendent of his enemy, which turns out to be guess who.

Actually, it’s guess whos, but that comes later. In order to fight David, Aquaman will have to team up with Orm, the half-brother who tried to kill him, and who is now in prison. The council will never approve, knowing that breaking Orm out of prison will start a war with his captors, but no matter, Aquaman does it anyway.

Much of the storyline is similar to “The Black Panther,” a kingdom with superior technology trying to decide whether to let the rest of the world know who they are and a villain seeking revenge with a conclusion for one character very reminiscent of Killmonger. And the mechanical octopus-like machine seems an awful lot like the one from “The Incredibles.” Topo, the real (CGI) octopus, is, fun, though, and I wish we’d seen more of him. The special effects range from okay to pretty good. Martin Short makes the best of a character who seems like a cross between Jabba the Hutt and a champion from RuPaul’s drag race.

It swings back and forth between meaningless nods to the issue of climate change (the most damaging technology is imaginary), action scenes with lots of monsters and machines, cliche dialog (“It’s time for me to reclaim my destiny!”), and corny winks at the audience. Here’s hoping the Gunn/Safran regime can do better.

NOTE: Stay for one mid-credits scene

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and constant comic book-style action with some grisly images of monsters. Characters are in peril and there are graphic wounds.

Family discussion: What influenced the relationship between Arthur and Orm? How would we think of environmental threats differently if we thought humanoid creatures lived there? Why did Aquaman try to save David?

If you like this, try: the other DC comics films and the comic books, especially the Neal Adams versions

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Being the Ricardos

Posted on December 9, 2021 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 10, 2021

Copyright Amazon Studios 2021
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin takes three real-life potentially cataclysmic events in the life of America’s most famous celebrity couple and packs them into one high-intensity week for “Being the Ricardos,” with Oscar-winners Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. As title cards take us through each day of the week of production for an episode of “I Love Lucy,” from the table read on Monday, through the rehearsals, to the taping at the end of the week.

We get to see what an intense, challenging, and serious business producing 22 minutes of comedy is. Lucy, who explains to a director she thinks is third-rate that she is not like Danny Thomas, whose “Make Room for Daddy” show he had been working on. “He tells jokes,” she says with palpable irritation, “I am a physical comedian.” All around her are people who seem to be getting in the way of her vision for the show, whether it is grumpy William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), who plays Fred, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who feels neglected, or the television network and sponsors, who seem to think they can tell her what to do. But nothing oppresses her more than her own perfectionism. She just knows that there is some key to a dinner scene that will take it from cute to hilarious, and she just has to keep thinking about it until she can lock it in. “She’s working through beats all the time,” a character says. It is clear she will sacrifice almost anything including damaging her professional and personal relationships if that is what it takes to get every minute of the show exactly where it needs to be. We see in flashbacks her struggles as a starlet, with studios who did not know what to do with her so her roles were limited to “sticking my head in a frame, saying something biting, and going home.”

That is more than enough to occupy her full attention, but she is also facing three terrible threats, one to her show, one to her career, and one to her marriage.

It is the height of the “Red Scare,” and even the child actor on “Make Room for Danny” has had to sign a loyalty oath. Walter Winchell, the most powerful journalist in the country, has accused Lucille Ball of being a communist. In this era, even an whispered, unsubstantiated accusation of communism could mean being blacklisted, so that no jobs in movies, television, or radio would ever be offered again. “I Love Lucy” might be the most popular show on television, but it could be canceled overnight.

Another possible reason for canceling the show — Lucille Ball was pregnant. It is hard too understand for today’s audiences, but in those days not only did even real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have separate twin beds on the show (as did every other married couple on television). For the purposes of television, sex did not exist, and the idea that a pregnancy might make audiences consider how it came about was unthinkable for the television network and the cigarette company sponsor. They tell Lucy that she can just stand behind things and go on as usual, pretending that the pregnancy did not exist. But she rightly believed that the audiences would be thrilled to experience the real-life and television pregnancy. (They did decide that the show would never include the actual word “pregnant,” however, using the euphemistic but not fooling anyone term “expecting.” by the way, they were also not allowed to use the word “lucky,” because it was the name of a rival brand of cigarettes.)

And then there is the most painful of all. A gossip magazine has published photos of what they say is Desi fooling around with other women. That puts at risk not only Lucy’s career but her marriage to the father of the child she already has and the one she is expecting.

I would love a world where Aaron Sorkin wrote everyone’s dialogue. Every sentence is perfectly composed. But the British have an expression “too clever by half” which I think of when he is both writer and director with no intermediary. The script is dazzling. The brilliance of the lines tips over into a quippiness that distracts us from the real conflicts and emotions that are going on. And there’s always an uncanny valley risk when even the best actors play real-life people whose faces and gestures and voices we know almost as well as we know our own family. The issues presented are engaging in their own terms and as reflections of our time but because of the impenetrable glossiness of the script it never does what Lucille Ball was so good at — making us love her.

Note: It is interesting that three of the biggest end-of-year films were made by adults about their parents: “Belfast,” “King Richard,” and this film, produced by Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, frank sexual references, including adultery, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Which problem was the most difficult? Which relationship was the most functional?

If you like this, try: “I Love Lucy” and the TCM podcast about Lucille Ball, “The Plot Thickens,” season three. This is the episode about the accusations of communism. Watch “The Big Street,” the tragic drama where she plays a showgirl loved by a busboy played by Henry Fonda. My favorite of her movie performances is in the Tracy-Hepburn film “Without Love,” where she plays a whip-smart Washington liaison.

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The Prom

Posted on December 10, 2020 at 5:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive/sexual references, and language
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, homophobia
Date Released to Theaters: December 11, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
Irving Berlin was right. There’s no people like show people. And no one knows and loves show people as much as other show people, which is why “The Prom” is 20 percent sly satire and 80 percent love letter to the craziness that goes into entertaining audiences.

“The Prom” was a mildly successful Broadway musical about Broadway stars who want to restore their reputations after their new show has a disastrous opening night (a musical about Franklin and Eleonor Roosevelt). They see an injustice on Twitter. A small Indiana high school has cancelled its prom rather than allow a student to bring a same-sex date. And so, not even sure where Indiana is or what it is, they get on a bus, sure that their Broadway luster and can-do spirit will teach those people in flyover country about respect and inclusion. “This will be the biggest thing that’s happened in Indiana since..whatever the last big thing that happened in Indiana was,” one declares.

As you might guess, the Hoosiers are not impressed, even when Broadway leading lady Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) pulls out her two Tony Awards, which she apparently has on hand at all times, in case someone does not who Who She Is. The high school student at the center of the fuss is Emma (a star-making turn from Jo Ellen Pellman) has a bigger problem than the prom; the girl who would be her date is the daughter of the woman fighting to prevent same-sex couples from attending (Kerry Washington as Mrs. Greene). Caught in the middle is the high school principal, Tom Hawkins, who happens to be a fan of Broadway musicals, especially those featuring Dee Dee (Keegan-Michael Key).

The story adds some unexpected sweetness and reconciliation but really the entire production is just a change to have some fun with some inside theater humor and put on a big, colorful, splashy show with a bunch of Tony and Oscar-winners. Streep has a blast as a larger-than-life personality who is only at home on stage. After letting down someone who genuinely cares for her, the only way she can apologize is to reprise one of her career’s signature numbers. Andrew Rannells (a Tony Award winner for “Book of Mormon”) has a huge musical number with local kids in a shopping mall. Nicole Kidman plays the kind of chorus line hoofer who goes from show to show but never makes it into a lead role, and James Corden is a gay man who sees Emma’s problems in very personal terms because his parents rejected him after he came out.

You don’t have to understand the relative status of a Tony vs. a Drama Desk award or remember which musical had the most performances before “Cats” to sit back and enjoy the good-hearted fun, clever lyrics (by Chad Beguelin), and the jubilant dance numbers choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. It most important message is not inclusion but about the power of art itself, especially big, splashy, energetic, colorful musical, to bring us together and heal what hurts.

Parents should know that the theme of this movie is homophobia and inclusion. It includes some sexual humor and some sexual references, some alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What would you say to Mrs. Greene? What’s your favorite musical?

If you like this, try: “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Footloose,” “Hairspray,” and “High School Musical”

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Bombshell

Posted on December 12, 2019 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sexual pressure and harassment
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 9, 2020

Copyright 2019 Lionsgate
The word “bombshell” works both ways as the title of this film based on the true story of the #metoo moment that rocked the powerful leadership of Fox News and brought down its visionary founder Roger Ailes. “Bombshell” means a very attractive woman (check out the Jean Harlow movie of the same name, about a gorgeous movie star, and the documentary of the same name, about Hedy Lamar). And “bombshell” also means a shocking piece of news. Both are equally apt.

Those who watched “The Loudest Voice in the Room” on Showtime know that Ailes transformed the news media by creating a network that had two important innovations: gorgeous women in revealing clothes delivering news stories slanted toward white people who think their victimhood has been overlooked. As an executive puts it in this film, “You have to adopt the mentality of an Irish street cop. The world is a bad place. People are lazy morons. Minorities are criminals. Sex is sick, but interesting. Ask yourself, ‘What would scare my grandmother, or p— off my grandfather?’ And that’s a Fox story.”

The story is almost operatic in scope and drama and director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”) hit the tone just right, the heightened urgency of the newsroom, the millions of small and devastatingly large compromises at the top of the media food chain.

The performances are sizzling. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is a fading star at FOX, relegated to off-peak programs. (I could not help thinking of this performance as a bookend with Kidman’s “To Die For,” with Kidman as a woman who was willing to do anything, including sexual favors and murder, to get a job on TV news.) Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a rising star, and as this movie begins, she is horrified to find herself in the middle of a story as then-candidate Donald Trump makes ugly and crude accusations because she surprised him by asking him to comment on some of his insults to women (“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals”) in an on-air interview. Margot Robbie plays Kayla, a fictional character based on the ambitious lower-level staff and what those who asked Ailes for on-camera opportunities were expected to do to show their “loyalty.”

Some early critics of the film object to the women being portrayed as feminist heroines. But they are not portrayed as feminist heroines; on the contrary. They’re not fighting courageously for justice like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. They are carefully calibrating how much abuse, how many humiliations, how much indignity they are willing to trade for the professional opportunities they want, even when it means ignoring abuse of other women. Answer: a lot. Ultimately, there is a limit, though, and watching each character locate that line is what makes this movie smart and engrossing. For Carlson, it is being fired. For Kayla, it is a painful realization after the fact, and after someone else has taken the almost unthinkably daunting step of going first. And the stakes are clear. “Once you go public, no one will hire you,” Carlson is told. Her post-lawsuit career has focused on sexual harassment issues either because she now recognizes the importance of the issue or because she cannot get any other job. The week of the film’s release she wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling on Fox to withdraw the non-disclosure agreement she had to sign in order to settle her case. It’s unlikely, but if they do, maybe we’ll get another movie out of it.

The focus here is on Kelly. It is one thing to burn your bridges after you have been fired and have nothing to lose, but it is entirely another for a woman near the top of her profession who says, “I’m not a feminist; I’m a lawyer,” who does not want to be the story, who is in cutthroat competition with the other beautiful blondes and not one to raise a fist and proclaim that sisterhood is powerful. What will it take to get her to speak out and what price will she pay for saying something? Kelly is a complicated character and the way her dilemma is presented here is complicated and nuanced, more directed toward nods of recognition than standing ovations. Her career has been rocky (except for financially) since her decision to acknowledge the abuse, which makes this a cautionary tale that does not make the prospect of feminist heroine-ing look very appealing.

What is even more fascinating here is the setting. Is Fox a news organization as it has traditionally been understood? We get glimpses of other Fox personalities, including Bill O’Reilly, who left Fox following his own #metoo abuses. The way the organization responds to Carlson’s claims — handing out “Team Roger” t-shirts before any investigation even though it is generally known why there’s a lock on his door and a separate entrance to his office — says something about whether “loyalty” is more important than the truth, to them and to us.

Parents should know that this film is based on the real life #metoo upheavals at FOX News, with explicit discussions and some depiction of sexual harassment, abuse, and predation, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did the three women respond differently? How has coming forward affected their careers? What is the best way to prevent abuse by people in power?

If you like this, try: “The Loudest Voice” miniseries and “The Hunting Ground”

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The Goldfinch

Posted on September 12, 2019 at 5:25 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use by adults and teens
Violence/ Scariness: Terrorism and crime-related violence, drunk driving, child abuse, characters injured and killed including death of five different parents
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019
Copyright Amazon Studios 2019

There are three major problems with “The Goldfinch,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt. The first is that it is long, nearly two and a half hours. The second is that it is dull, so it seems much longer. And the third is that it is a mess, and not in an interesting way. It tries very hard to be many things all at once — to be meaningful, to be significant, to be dramatic, to be exciting, and to illuminate issues of grief and loss and love and identify. Most of all it aspires to be an awards-worthy film, as the adaptation of an acclaimed literary work should be. But it succeeds at none of them.

What it does have are way too many of the indicators of pretentiousness and of telling (which is what books do) instead of showing (which is what movies do, the good ones anyway). Every item on the check list gets ticked off as the film lumbers on: affectedly literary voiceovers with aphoristic sounding observations that are not especially illuminating or insightful, a pinkly pinkly piano on the soundtrack, flashbacks, and w world where even in New York City our character just keep running into each other all the time because there are only six people in the world and everyone else is just background.

Theo (Oakes Fegley as a boy, Ansel Elgort as an adult) and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when his mother and many other visitors were killed in a terrorist bombing attack. Theo blames himself, because his mother was only there with him because she was on her way to see the principal about a bogus complaint that Theo had been smoking at school. Or, perhaps he blames himself because he lagged behind while she went on to the next room because he was mesmerized by a pretty red-headed girl. Or, it could be he blames himself just because he survived and she did not. In the chaos following the explosion, we will learn, Theo had an odd but portentous conversation with a man who was dying. And, in one of the defining moments of his life, Theo took a small, priceless painting from the museum, a picture of a goldfinch.

Theo initially stays with a wealthy, cultured family (headed by Boyd Gaines and Nicole Kidman), then in Nevada the feckless, alcoholic father who had abandoned him (Luke Wilson), then a kindly antique dealer/restorer (Jeffrey Wright) connected to the man whose death Theo witnessed in the museum and the girl who caught his attention just before the blast. He is befriended by a skinny Ukranian immigrant in his class named Boris (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard as a boy, Aneurin Barnard as an adult), who has the pale skin and unruly hair of Edward Scissorhands. Events lumber forward without any real emotional connection, only hammered-home reminders that life is fragile, grief is inevitable, and a leaf may wilt but a painting of a leaf will not, though it can be stolen.

There. I just saved you a soapy 2 1/2 hour slog capped with a preposterous shoot-out. You’re welcome.

Parents should know that this film includes terrorism and crime-related peril and violence, drunk driving, characters injured and killed including deaths of five parents, child abuse, attempted suicide, drinking and drug use by children and adults, and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Theo take the painting? Why was the wilted leaf in the painting important? Why didn’t Boris join Theo in New York?

If you like this, try: the book by Donna Tartt and the book and movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (also featuring Jeffrey Wright),

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