Thunder Force

Posted on April 9, 2021 at 12:10 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action/violence, and mild suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence, mostly comic but some mayhem and characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 9, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
Writer/director Ben Falcone likes to cast his wife, the endlessly talented Melissa McCarthy, as characters who are impulsive, not very bright, and not very good at reading the room, picking up social cues, or keeping thoughts unspoken. So, we know what we’re going to get from “Thunder Force,” with McCarthy as a forklift operator and Van Halen fan who unexpectedly becomes a superhero. I prefer their “Life of the Party,” with McCarthy in less of a slapstick role, but of course it is fun to watch. It takes too long to get going, with a not-very-interesting origin story, and three things are not as funny as they hope: references to 90s pop culture, questioning the sexual orientation of the heroines, and having the bad guys kill people.

There are two twists to the usual superhero backstory here. First, and most intriguingly, it is set in a world where the only people with superpowers are evil. Back in the 80s, a radioactive blah blah but it only affected those with a genetic predisposition to be receptive, and all of those people were sociopaths. So, ordinary humans are powerless against a bunch of selfish, conscienceless, supervillains who behave like the mean kids in middle school. Except instead of not letting you sit at their table in the cafeteria they throw electric fireballs that blow things up. They’re known as the Miscreants. (Great word!)

The Miscreants include Bobby Cannevale as a mayoral candidate who insists on being referred to as “The King” (not funny the first time or any of the subsequent times), running against an AOC-like rival named Rachel Gonzales (Melissa Ponzio), and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” star Pom Klementieff as Laser, who has the power of throwing electrified fireballs and the hobby of killing people.

Second, the superheroes here are middle-aged, plus sized ladies. Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) met in a Chicago school, when Emily, a brainy transfer student, was being bullied and Lydia stood up for her. They became friendship bracelet-sharing BFFs, and spent a lot of time together, including dinner with Emily’s grandmother, who took Emily in after her scientist parents were killed by the Miscreants. Emily is determined to carry on the work of her parents and find a way to defeat the supervillains.

Lydia and Emily become estranged in high school, when Emily says she has no time for anything but her work. Years later, as their reunion approaches, Lydia is a forklift operator in a Slayer t-shirt and Emily is the founder of a hugely successful company with a new headquarters in Chicago. Lydia goes to the the office to bring Emily to the reunion, is told not to touch anything, but is incapable of obeying that or pretty much any other cautionary direction. Suddenly she’s in a dentist chair-type thing with needles going into her cheeks. She has accidentally injected herself with the serum Emily has been working on for years to create superpowers for good guys. Her colleagues are Allie (Melissa Leo), and Emily’s super-smart daughter Tracy (a warm and winning performance by Taylor Mosby), a college graduate at age 15.

Lydia continues to get the injections, building up her strength, speed, and fighting skills. For some reason, this involves eating a lot of raw chicken. Meanwhile, Emily is undergoing a far less strenuous regimen, to give her the superpower of invisibility. Finally, they are ready to go on a trial run, stopping the robbery of a convenience store. At this point, Lydia and Emily prevent the thugs from stealing money but even these two powerhouses cannot prevent Jason Bateman from stealing the movie. I won’t spoil who or what his character is, but he is far and away the movie’s highlight. He and McCarthy spark off each other in a delicious manner, both with exquisite comic timing and unexpected and offbeat rhythms. Now that is a superpower.

Parents should know that while this is a comedy, there is some scary action with explosions, murders, and potential domestic terrorism. There are repeated references to the deaths of Emily’s parents. The movie also includes some strong language, alcohol, suggestive content and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What super powers would you like to have? Why did Lydia and Emily like each other? What did Emily learn about Lydia from Tracy?

If you like this, try: “Life of the Party” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”

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The Witches (2020)

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Magical potions
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comedy/fantasy peril, children and witches transformed into animals, sad death of parents in auto accident
Diversity Issues: Diversity issues of the era briefly referred to
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2020
Copyright HBO 2020

The witches are back. First there was the the 1963 book by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda, and some creepy stories for grown-ups, too). Then there was the 1990 movie, starring Angelica Huston (and making a significant change to the ending). And now, CGI fantasy-master Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future”) gives us his version, starring two Oscar-winners and co-written with Kenya Barris of “Black-ish” and “Girls Trip.”

“Witches are as real as a rock in your shoe…They’re here and they live amongst us,” the narrator immediately identifiable as Chris Rock tells us. And “witches hate children. They get the same pleasure from squishing a child as you get from ice cream with butterscotch sauce and a cherry on top.”

Then we go back in time to 1968. The setting of the book and the first movie has been moved from Norway and England to a Black community in Alabama. Jahzir Bruno plays the unnamed boy whose parents are killed in an automobile accident in the first few minutes. His grandmother (Octavia Spencer) comes to get him. He’ll be living with her, in the house where his mother grew up. He describes her as “quick to give you a spanking if you deserved it or a hug if you need it.” She comforts him. And when he has a scary encounter with a gloved woman in a hat who offers him candy, she starts to tell him what she knows about witches.

She had her own encounter with a witch as a child, when one turned her best friend into a chicken. And so, to keep him safe, she takes him to a grand hotel. Unfortunately, it turns out the hotel is also hosting a convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, relishing the opportunity to vamp up a storm).

One element of the story that has not aged well is the way it dwells on the physical deformities of the witches, bald, with scabby scalps, huge, gaping mouths, claw hands, and no toes. Even though the witches are not human, the association of disabilities with evil is less palatable than it once was. (Anne Hathaway has apologized for the insensitivity of this portrayal.)

Zemeckis sometimes gets so caught up in the visual effects that he overlooks the story, but here the visuals are almost entirely in service of the story, especially after the boy is turned into a mouse (which, adorably, he quite likes) and we get to see things from his angle. Dahl’s story provides a strong foundation, and Spencer, who could easily have phoned in a role like this, gives it her substantial all. I’d still give the 1990 version the edge, but it is good to see the original ending restored and this is a worthy Halloween treat.

Parents should know that this film has fantasy peril and violence and some disturbing images. A child’s parents are killed in a car accident. Children are turned into mice. Witches have physical deformities including huge, scary, gaping mouths. There is some schoolyard language and there are understated references to racism of the era.

Family discussion: Why did the boy like being a mouse? What was the scariest moment in the movie? Why do the witches do what the Grand High Witch tells them?

If you like this, try: the 1990 film with Angelica Huston and the book by Roald Dahl, as well as the movies based on his other books, including “Matilda,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “The BFG”

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Onward

Posted on March 4, 2020 at 5:19 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence, theme of loss
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Copyright Pixar 2020
Arthur C. Clarke, the sci-fi author who wrote 2001, famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At the beginning of Pixar’s new animated fantasy, “Onward” we see what happens when a world of wizards, elves, incantations, and — in both senses of the word — charms changes when technology takes over. It may be more satisfyingly magical to use a spell to bring light to darkness, but it can never be as convenient. And so, in this community, most of the inhabitants have given up magic to live in a way that to us seems almost normal. Even if our two main characters here are blue elves, teenage boy elves, so with the pointy ears and all, but also with the usual angst of adolescence, plus the extra longing that comes from never having known their father.

The younger one is Ian (voice of “Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland), timid, anxious, and just turning 16. His older brother is Barley (“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” Chris Pratt), more of a bro-type, way into fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons, and enjoying a gap year before whatever he will get around to eventually. They live with their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who tells Ian there is a special birthday present waiting for him, a message from his father. Now that Ian is 16, he may be able to use his father’s “visitation spell” to bring him back for just one day. Ian is overwhelmed, nervous, and very excited.

Those are not ideal conditions for first-time magic, so things do not go exactly as wished. Dad is only half there, literally. Not as in a see-through ghost, as in up to the waist. Shoes, socks, khaki pants, and a belt. In order to get the rest of him, Ian and Barley will have to go on a good, old-fashioned magic quest, one that will resonate especially with fans of fantasy games, both IRL and digital. And like all heroic journeys, they will be tested in ways they could never have imagined, learn lessons they could never have known enough to ask the right questions for, and strengthen bonds they did not know they had.

If you are familiar with fantasy lore, whether in games or fiction, you will enjoy many references and details. If you are not, you will find out just how much fun and satisfaction there is in a world where every element is up for re-imagining. What would a fantasy world stop sign say? What would an elf have a a pet? You’ll find out. What is the same is as much fun as what is different. The community’s reflections of its mingled magic and technology history plays out with Pixar’s always-delicious whimsy and future viewers on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming will want to hit pause to examine the settings in detail.

Like all of the best fantasy, we learn more about our own world through the way the Pixar crowd re-imagines it. One of my favorite settings will be especially entertaining to families who eat out at “family-style” restaurants. This one is run by the Manticore, a sort of winged bear with bison horns and a scorpion tail-type beast with the voice of Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.

The highlight of the film is the parallel heroic journey taken by the Manticore and Laurel, who deserve a movie of their own. In most stories, the mom’s job is to say “Be careful” and then bake brownies to welcome the boys back home, or to mess things up and have to be rescued. Not here.

There are other welcome surprises as well, not just in the adventures and characters along the way, but in the way it gets (and does not get) resolved. And, because this is Pixar, you’re going to cry when it happens, and hug your family a little bit harder, too.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of of loss of a parent, sibling conflict, as well as fantasy peril and action, and some monsters.

Family discussion: If there’s someone in your life you miss, what would you ask them or say to them? Which is better, magic or technology? Is there a mighty warrior inside of you?

If you like this, try: “Yellow Submarine” and “Finding Nemo”

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Gifted

Posted on April 6, 2017 at 5:37 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scenes in bar, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to sad death of parent, suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank Adler” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.
Mckenna Grace as “Mary Adler” and Chris Evans as “Frank Adler” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

What does it mean to be “gifted?” Movies and television don’t do a very good job of portraying what it means to be cognitively advanced, and this one is not close to being realistic, with a first grader who reads up on the problems of the EU and can identify a missing minus sign in an equation several lines long. And she is adorably missing those top front teeth for a really long time when anyone who has ever been the family tooth fairy knows that the new ones come in pretty fast. What we learn from this is that the movie does not want to take any chance that you might need a reminder of how endearing it all is. Everything looks dipped in honey and the script is gooey, too, like a lesser Hallmark movie. But Chris Evans’ sensitive, deeply affecting performance and genuine chemistry with McKenna Grace as his brilliant niece are so honest that it captivates us anyway.

Evans is Frank, who repairs boats and lives with Mary (McKenna Grace) in a tiny apartment in Florida. They have an easy rapport and are completely at home with each other. Mary is also close to their neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer). Mary is cognitively advanced, very curious, sometimes impatient, and sometimes anxious due to her reading about the world economy. Frank has been teaching her at home, but she is about to start first grade at a public school because he wants her to be with other children and to be more of a child herself. “Try being a kid,” Frank tells her as she gets on the bus. He does not really think it is possible to “dumb her down into being a normal kid,” or that it would be the right thing to do if it was, but he would like her to have the chance to make friends with children her own age and learn how to play.

It does not take long for Mary’s new teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) to figure out that Mary is truly gifted, after she has to take out her calculator to check Mary’s computations. Frank’s attempts to deflect her attention are unsuccessful, but Bonnie appreciates his commitment to trying to create some kind of normalcy around Mary. She also appreciates Frank. Though they both know it is not a good idea for Mary or for Bonnie’s job, they begin a relationship.

And then Evelyn (a nicely frosty Lindsay Duncan) shows up. She is Frank’s mother and Mary’s grandmother. She brings a laptop for Mary and a message for Frank: she wants Mary to get an education commensurate with her ability. “She’s not normal and treating her as such is negligence on a grand scale,” she says. We will learn more about why that matters so much to Evelyn and why Frank refuses when they take the custody fight to court.

Of course we know whose side we should root for and where it is all going. This movie has a lovable one-eyed cat, for goodness sake. But Evans and Grace have a little bit of magic that shines through.

Parents should know that there are some mature themes in this film including a custody battle, a sad parental death by suicide (off-screen) with some strong language, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, alcohol and cigarettes.

Family discussion: Would you like to be as smart as Mary? Why didn’t Mary’s mother want Evelyn to know what she had done?

If you like this, try: “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “Little Man Tate” — and “Captain January” with Shirley Temple

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The Shack

Posted on March 2, 2017 at 5:57 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcoholic parent
Violence/ Scariness: Tragic murder of a child, domestic and child abuse, gun, possible attempted suicide
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 3, 2017
Copyright Summit 2017
Copyright Summit 2017

“The Shack,” based on the best-seller by William P.Young seeks to provide comfort and healing for those struggling with a terrible loss and with something even worse — the fear that tragedy has no purpose and the doubt that pain engenders about whether life makes sense. Can there be meaning in a world of senseless tragedy, where the innocent suffer? The book‘s subtitle is Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, and it is somewhere between a parable, a fantasy, and a story about a man devastated by grief who spends a week in a shack in the woods, talking to God.

While some people, including some Christians, will find the theology of this story questionable, it presents an accessible and comforting notion of God’s love and the healing power of forgiveness.

Sam Worthington plays Mackenzie, a loving husband and father of three children who still struggles with his memories of his abusive father, a man of “calloused hand, rigid rules” and alcoholism. “Pain has a way of twisting us up inside and making us do the unthinkable,” and “the secrets we keep have a way of clawing themselves up to the surface.” (It is not clear exactly what the most painful secrets are but it seems possible he murdered his abusive dad?)

Mack takes his children on a camping trip, where his youngest daughter Missy is kidnapped and brutally murdered while he is rescuing his son, trapped under an overturned canoe. Mac, who had always been surprised and touched by Missy’s simple faith in a God she felt close enough to that she referred to Him as Papa, is shattered by guilt and grief. Even though he sees the pressure it puts on his family, he cannot break out of his isolation.

When his family is away, Mack finds a note in his mailbox, though there are no footprints in the snow. The note is signed “Papa” and it invites him to come to the woods, to the very shack where Missy’s bloody dress was found.  Although he dreads returning to the place of his crushing pain, he goes, and it is there he meets the Trinity. God, known as Elousia, I Am, or Papa, is in the form of an African-American woman who was a kind neighbor in his childhood and who wears Ma Griffe, the perfume he mother loved (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer). She says he will be most open to her in the form of a mother, and apparently one who loves Neil Young.

God’s Son is in the form of a young carpenter who can walk on water and run on it, too (Avraham Aviv Alush), and the Spirit is known as Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).  

They live in a Kinkade-like Eden, filled with warmth, light, nature, good food, and laughter.  Very gently, they guide him to an understanding that God’s love does not mean freedom from pain, but a sharing of that pain that can help him forgive and help make his spirit whole.

Some believers will dismiss this as “comfort food Christianity.” The Son actually says that religion is too much work. “I don’t want slaves; I want friends,” and he himself is “not exactly a Christian.” Papa tells him, “I can work incredible goodness out of unspeakable tragedy, but that does not mean I orchestrate the tragedies.”

But its idea that God loves us enough to reach out to every one of us in our the way we are best able to understand is genuinely touching. The insights Sam reaches about forgiveness and healing could be arrived at via psychotherapy or a number of other ways, but for this man — and this audience, the message is meaningful and touching, and a good reminder that patience and forgiveness are always worth making time for, and that every act of kindness changes the universe.

Parents should know that this movie concerns the brutal kidnapping and murder of a child, with images of her bloodied dress and dead body, a gun and possible attempted suicide, as well as depictions of wife and child abuse and alcoholism.

Family discussion: Why is it important to learn to forgive, even when the transgression is evil?  How did each member of the Trinity teach Mack a different lesson?

If you like this, try: “What Dreams May Come” and “Henry Poole is Here”

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