Haunted Mansion

Posted on July 26, 2023 at 7:54 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for scary action and some thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended horror-style images, scary ghosts, many references to murder and mayhem, disturbing images, very sad (offscreen) deaths
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 28, 2023

Copyright Disney 2023
I am a huge fan of Disney World’s Haunted Mansion and I enjoyed this movie but I have to admit the biggest laugh I got was from the opening credits listing Jared Leto as “The Hatbox Ghost.” I mean, talk about too on the nose.

We will not speak of Disney’s first attempt to make a movie based on one of its most popular attractions, except to say that this one is much, much better, with a starry cast, Disney’s can’t-be-beat production design from
Darren Gilford, and, like the theme park attraction, just the right balance of chills, thrills, and comedy.

I highly recommend the “Behind the Attraction” episode about the creation of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and Disney World (on Disney+). It has a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes details about the people and the choices that went into creating the creepy house with elongated elevator, the “Doom Buggy,” and the hitchhiking ghosts that follow you home. You will see th “breath mint, no it’s a candy mint” back-and-forth about whether it was supposed to be funny or scary, and how it ended up as both. Director Justin Simien (“Dear White People” and screenwriter Katie Dippold expertly balance scary and funny in the tradition of the attraction and of classic haunted house films like “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Canterville Ghost,” and “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.”

The setting, like the imaginary location of the Disney World attraction, is New Orleans. We meet our reluctant hero, Ben Mathias (LaKeith Stanfield) as a shy astrophysicist specializing in lenses to view the previously unseen around us, as he is meeting the woman who will become his wife, Alyssa (Charity Jordan). She says she is also in the business of locating the unseen. She conducts ghost tours.

A few years later, Alyssa has died, and Ben is consumed with grief and guilt. He drinks too much, and he is a grumpy tour guide, strictly history, nothing paranormal. (I’ve been on a New Orleans ghost tour, by the way, well worth it, but watch out for some damaging misdirection.) He gets a visit from a priest named Kent (Owen Wilson), who has been asked to perform an exorcism at a huge haunted mansion recently purchased by a doctor (Gabbie, played by Rosario Dawson with a severe hairstyle), a recent widow with a young son. Ben has no interest in the job and is certain there is no such thing as ghosts, but he cannot resist the $10,000 fee. He half-heartedly pretends to use his fancy lens in a camera with a dead battery to seek ghosts in the house and pronounces it ghost-free.

Needless to say, it is not. And one of the ghosts, a very soggy one, follows him home and forces him to return, this time with a working camera. Soon Gabbie, her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), Kent and Ben are trying to figure out what is behind all of the hauntings, along with two other members of the team, historian Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito) and medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish). This self-titled Dream Team has to figure out how to placate the evil spirit before he collects his 1000th soul and is able to wreck havoc on the rest of the world.

The fabulously talented cast gives their all and their all is great fun to watch. Stanfield is, as always brilliant, giving us authenticity in the depiction of his sense of loss without conflicting with the movie’s overall heightened tone. Haddish is hilarious but grounded as the medium, and DeVito gets a chance to, I’m just going to say, get wild. Fans of the attraction will get a big kick out of the many references to its most beloved and iconic objects and characters. This should be a Halloween favorite for generations of families.

There is also a powerhouse list of supporting performers, including Oscar-winner Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota, one of the attraction’s most iconic figures. The original was named for Imagineer Leota “Toombs” Thomas, who provided the spooky head chanting incantations in the crystal ball. Daniel Levy has a tiny role (please let there be deleted scenes) as an actor in another spooky historic mansion. And Hasan Minhaj is very funny as a skeptical but very accurate police sketch artist. As for Oscar-winner Leto, well, he is, as is often the case, unrecognizable as a character originally designed for the attraction but not added until much later, when the technology caught up with the concept.

The movie is scary at times but the references to many murders and offscreen deaths that have caused devastating grief for the characters is more disturbing than the gruesome imagery. Simien is very good at breaking the tension with humor just when it is needed. Like the theme park classic, t is sure to be a Halloween favorite for generations to come.

NOTE: Reportedly, Simien insisted on a Black leading man. For those of us with a sense of movie history, it was especially satisfying to have a Black man as the hero, because this genre often had some of the most damaging stereotypes in movie history, with the only Black characters being terrified in a silly manner as comic relief.

Parents should know: This movie includes many scary and disturbing paranormal images and concepts, with murderous ghosts and grisly images. There are extremely sad offscreen deaths, including a parent and a wife.

Family discussion: Do you believe in ghosts? What did the characters learn about the best way to deal with them? Watch the “Behind the Attraction” episode about the Haunted Mansion and when you get a chance, visit it!

If you like this, try: “The Canterville Ghost,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Cat and the Canary,” “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” and “The Addams Family” and its sequel

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Fantasy movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Remake Thriller

Bliss

Posted on February 4, 2021 at 5:50 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug content, language, some sexual material and violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence including an accidental homicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 5, 2021

Copyright Amazon Prime 2021
If you could, if it was possible, would you smooth all of life’s rough spots? Would you remove all worry, all fear, all sadness, all pain? Would you want to live in a world of perpetual bliss?

That is the question raised provocatively but very imperfectly in “Bliss,” with Owen Wilson as greg, a gray-spirited low-level worker failing in a soul-killing dead-end job apologizing to customers who call tech support. Our own anxiety levels rise as we see him seemingly not aware of the pressure he is under. The boss wants to see him immediately. But instead of leaving his office, he talks on the phone — to a daughter reminding him of the details of her graduation and to a pharmacy that refuses refill his pain-killer prescription. We learn from this that his marriage is over due to failures on his part, that his promises are not reliable, that he has a drug problem, and that he is in trouble at work. And we see him obsessively drawing pictures of place and a woman he has never seen, like Richard Dreyfuss sculpting mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

But then it turns out our assumptions and his may be wrong. We find ourselves in a blue-or-red-pill situation, “The Matrix” without the bullet time, or the bullets. After things go even more terribly wrong, Greg finds himself in a bar, where a mysterious woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek) tells him he is “real” in a way the others in the room are not. There may be another reality or, perhaps, just one real reality, which is not the one with the office and the phone calls.

SPOILER ALERT: I am going to have to spoil a few things in order to be able to talk about the movie, so if you do not want any spoilers, stop reading now, watch “Bliss,” and then if you want to know more about what I think about it, you can come back. Isabel does not give Greg the whole story. She just takes him to stay with her at a makeshift shelter in an area where homeless people camp out. It turns out she and Greg are not just part of but responsible for an experiment in re-calibration for people who have found the idyllic life of the future so blissful the only thing they have to complain about is the temperature of the pool water. It just might be that even in a world supposedly free from stress there still remain concerns (about the legitimacy and success of one’s research in absolute terms and in the way it is perceived by others). It may also be that worry and fear are inextricably linked to creativity, imagination, and an innate human inclination to problem solving and some notion of progress.

These are wonderful questions to explore and there are moments of real emotion in the film along with superb design work by Kasra Farahani (“Captain Marvel”). But the script gets tangled up in its own perameters of the world or worlds it creates. The internal logic of the storyline is inconsistent enough to undermine our connection to the characters and to the issues it raises. In case you’re looking around wondering which reality you’re in, my advice is to bet on the one with Bill Nye the Science Guy in it.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, peril, and an apparent accidental homicide.

Family discussion: Which reality would you chose and why? What would happen if all trouble, stress, and worry was removed from our lives?

If you like this, try: “The Matrix,” “The Black Box,” “Black Mirror,” and “Passion of Mind”

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Drama movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Science-Fiction

Wonder

Posted on November 16, 2017 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some bullying and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Wonder is more than a book — it is a movement. R.J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, and its follow-ups, including Auggie & Me, have become hugely popular with middle schoolers and their teachers. That is because it is not a story about disability, even though its hero is a 10-year-old with craniofacial deformity who is starting school for the first time after 27 surgeries. It is a story about friendship, family, and above all, kindness. As the 5th grade teacher writes on the blackboard, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Auggie (“Room’s” Jacob Tremblay) lives with his loving parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), his devoted older sister Via (for Olivia) (Izabela Vidovic), and their dog in a comfortable New York brownstone. With medical treatment to help him see and hear, Auggie’s face is misshapen and scarred. School principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) tries to put Auggie at ease by joking about his name (everyone has something people make fun of) and recruiting three students to give him a tour of the building before school starts. Scholarship student and all-around boy next door Jack (Noah Jupe), self-centered but not mean Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and nice-to-grownups-but-a-bully-to-anyone-who-makes-him-uncomfortable Julian (Bryce Gheisar) show him around, alternating between rude questions and pretending he’s not there.

And then school begins. Palacio has taken the most fraught period of life, when friendships are most vital and the tiniest panic about not fitting in can be devastating and heightens it even more by creating an extreme case. Auggie has already triumphed over his disability, which he barely notices. It is triumphing over middle school that is the near-impossible challenge. Palacio and this film understand that it is this time above all, with so many volcanic physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, it seems so desperately important to fit in, to seem, in the narrowest terms, “normal.” And, unfortunately, because they are still so young, it can seem that the best way to do that is to call attention to the ways that other kids are less normal than they are.

So, anyone who’s ever been in middle school will understand why Auggie comes home after the first day and cuts off his padewan braid, not with a light saber because he’s been made a Jedi knight but with his sister’s scissors because kids made fun of him at school. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with his face.

That comes later. The kids spread a rumor, even though none of them really believe it, that touching Auggie will give you “the plague.” And then Auggie does two things that made Julian lash out even more. He is smart in school. And he becomes friends with Jack and then some of the other kids, too, including Summer, a popular girl who joins Auggie’s table in the cafeteria not because she feels sorry for him but because she correctly senses that he is nicer than the catty girls she had been sitting with.

There are setbacks, as when Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, where he gets to look like everyone else, means that he has a chance to overhear what people say when they think he’s not around.

What elevates this film, though, is its recognition that kindness begins with empathy. By leaving Auggie’s point of view to let us know what is going on with some of the other characters, we understand more about why they behave the way they do. Via tells us what even her parents do not know, that it is difficult to be the sibling of a child with a problem, and that the most difficult part is feeling that there’s no space left for any problems from anyone else. When she is abandoned by her closest friend, we think we understand, until we get to see things from the friend’s perspective as well.

Director Stephen Chbosky (writer/director of another story about young friends, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and screenwriter for another movie about a character feared for his looks, “Beauty and the Beast”) has made a wise, warm-hearted film that is a balm for troubled times. It also just happens to have one of the most beautiful performances of the year by Julia Roberts, who wanted to be in the film after she read the book to her children. Look at her face as she sees that Auggie is bringing a friend home for the first time. It contains so much love, relief, surprise, and effort to contain all of that and more it serves as a one-minute master class in screen acting.

“I’m an ordinary kid,” Auggie tells us. “I just don’t look ordinary.” This is a movie that might look ordinary but is a quiet gem of insight and inspiration.

Translation: Story deals with challenges faced by a boy with craniofacial deformity attending school for the first time, bullying, some scuffles, mild schoolyard language

Family discussion: What can you do to choose kindness? How do you know when it is time to be right and when it is time to be kind? Why did Jack make fun of Auggie? Why did Summer sit with Auggie?

If you like this, try: Auggie & Me, the book by Wonder author R.J. Palacio that expands the story

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Based on a book Disabilities and Different Abilities movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews School Stories About Kids

Cars 3

Posted on June 15, 2017 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence including fiery car crashes, references to sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017
Copyright Disney/Pixar 2017

It’s better than “Cars 2,” but not as good as the first “Cars,” so it continues the saga of the second tier of Pixar movies.  Second-tier Pixar is pretty good. But this time the storyline is unlikely to be of much interest to children.  They’ll enjoy the race scenes (except for the ones that are too scary) and the silly humor.  But the theme of this film is the existential dilemma of an aging athlete.  While “Inside Out” and “Toy Story 3” addressed issues of growing older/up with infinite tenderness and sensitivity, “Cars 3,” with the help of generous samples of Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson character from the first film, has appropriated the plots of many of the “Rocky” movies, with now-champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) confronted with his own mortality.  I know; they’re machines, but apparently they have parents and childhoods and lifespans.

Lightning is beaten by a super-slick competitor dashingly named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who looks like he is visiting from another Disney movie, “Tron.”  And there’s another blow.  Lightning has loved being sponsored by his friends at Rust-Eze, but the company has been sold and his new sponsor is the smooth, corporate Sinclair (Nathan Fillion), who tells him that if he does not win his next race, he has to stop racing all together.

But racing is all Lightning knows or cares about.  If he can’t race, who is he?

Sinclair has a very high-tech training facility that’s all about cybermetrics. Lighting is assigned a new trainer, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), who is essentially a stopwatch on wheels.  Everything is about readouts and algorithms.  Lightning takes her out on the beach to show her what real racing is.  And he decides that his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, I mean Doc Hudson, may be gone, but perhaps he can find Doc’s mentor, and gain some wisdom.

Lighting and Cruz end up competing in what they think is a race but what turns out to be a demolition derby (pretty scary for G).  They squabble and make up and Cruz confides that she once dreamed of racing.  They do find Doc’s old friends, led by Smokey (Chris Cooper) and his adorable sidekicks.

It has talking cars, and kids will like that. And it doesn’t have the bombast and over-complexity of “Cars 2.”  But it also does not have the heart we have come to rely on from Pixar, and if we feel disappointed, it is only because they have set the bar so high.

Parents should know that despite the G rating, this film has characters in peril including scary 3D car crashes and fire, many references to a sad death and to the challenges of aging, and a reference to unsupportive parents.

Family discussion: Why did Lou take other children’s toys? Who is your mentor and who can you help as Doc Hudson helped Lightning?

If you like this, try: the other “Cars” movies and “A Bug’s Life”

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3D Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Movies -- format Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel

Zoolander 2

Posted on February 11, 2016 at 5:22 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language, crude references
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mostly comic peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, assault weapons, knives, explosions, building collapse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 12, 2016
Date Released to DVD: May 23, 2106
Amazon.com ASIN: B018IDVB6W

Copyright 2016 Paramount
Copyright 2016 Paramount

Kind of like fashion itself, we don’t really care whether “Zoolander 2” is any good. We go because it is silly fun.

The original Zoolander, released in 2001 just after the attacks on 9/11, was based on shorts Ben Stiller created for the VH1 fashion awards. It was moderately successful on release but has become a big hit on DVD/Blu-ray and an enduring cultural touchstone. It’s the kind of movie that is best watched at home, with friends who know exactly where the punchlines and star cameos come in, or while sick in bed recovering from the flu when you’re not quite up for binge-watching something that requires more than half your attention.

I suspect the same will happen with this 15-years-later sequel, again directed by Stiller, who stars as the dimwitted supermodel of the title and co-wrote with Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg. The script relies heavily on the audience’s affection for and knowledge of the first, with more winking references to the original than attempts to be funny about the current state of fashion and the industry.

In the first film, Derek Zoolander plans to build a book-shaped center called The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too. After that film ended, we are told through clips from television news shows (Katie Couric, Jane Pauley, and Jim Lehrer are among the first of an avalanche of what-is he/she-doing-in-this-movie celebrity cameos) that after it was built the building immediately collapsed, killing Zoolander’s wife (Stiller’s real-life spouse, Christine Taylor) and injuring Derek’s rival-turned BFF, Hansel (Owen Wilson).

Partly because he was so distraught, but mostly because he is an idiot, Derek was unable to take care of his son, Derek Jr., and he was taken away by Child Protective Services. Derek announced at a press conference that he was retiring from modeling to become “a hermit crab.” Hansel, his face scarred from his injury, also retreated from the world, to live in the desert (well, Malibu) with an 11-person assortment of consorts he refers to affectionately as his orgy.

But then a nefarious villain is killing pop stars, who die with what appears to be Derek’s famous Blue Steel look on their faces. When Justin Bieber is killed (with time for an Instagram filters joke), Interpol’s fashion division, led by a former swimsuit model (eternal beauty Penelope Cruz) decides that they need Derek’s help to solve the crime.

There’s a lot of fan service here, which can seem stale to those who know the first movie well. But as a lukewarm fan of the earlier film, I found myself being a lukewarm fan of this one, too. The dumb jokes (both those about being dumb and those that actually are dumb) and grotesqueries are no funnier but no less funny. The storyline (Will Derek be reunited with his son? Will Hansel be a father to his various upcoming babies? Will Will Ferrell’s Mugatu destroy whatever it is he is planning to destroy?) is weak, but it is a hoot to see the fashion dream team (even Anna Wintour!) playing themselves with such good humor. In fashion terms, it’s a cheap knock-off, but sometimes that’s all you need.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong content for a PG-13 including very crude sexual references and brief graphic sexual humor, mostly comic violence with characters injured and killed and some disturbing images, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What are the most important messages we receive from the fashion industry? If they make a “Zoolander 3,” what celebrities would you like to see included?

If you like this, try: the first “Zoolander”

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Comedy Movies -- format Series/Sequel
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