Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Posted on March 21, 2024 at 12:07 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for supernatural action/violence, language and suggestive references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended supernatural peril and violence, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Copyright Sony 2024

The latest installment of the now four-decades-long saga of the intrepid, firehouse-based, three-generation funny, scary, and then funny again and then scary/funny crew who capture ghosts is much better than the wobbly reboot, with plenty to delight both long-time fans and newcomers. Those who love the original 1984 will be happy to see the more-than-cameos returns of original stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts. Walter Peck, the mean-spirited non-believer from the EPA in the first film, is now the mayor, played once again by William Atherton. And some of the ghosts from the original are back, too, including tiny little Stay-Puff guys. And yes, there will be slime.

And, yay, they’re back in New York City! The contrast between the gritty, cynical, material reality of the city and the supernatural images is an essential element of this franchise.

Gary (Rudd) is no longer an unhappy single science teacher; he is happily in a warm, loving, supportive relationship with Callie Spengler (Coon) the daughter of the character played by the late Harold Ramis in the first film, and they are full-time ghostbusters, back in that firehouse, still very cool with the firehouse pole and the tricked-out hearse vehicle. Rudd and Coon have an easy chemistry that adds a quiet counterbalance to the wilder elements of the story.

The kids are older. Trevor (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard) keeps reminding Gary and Callie that he is 18, but they are not ready to make him a full part of the group. And brainiac Phoebe (McKenna Grace) is still the one who is on top of all the science and engineering but still only 15. Mean mayor Peck threatens Gary and Callie with prosecution for violation of child labor and neglect laws if they allow her to participate in ghost-busting. Gary cares about Trevor and Phoebe but has not figured out how best to relate to them. He wants them to like him so much that he is not comfortable taking on more of a parental role.

The other two young characters just happen to have found their way from Oklahoma to New York City so they can stay in the story. Lucky (a charming Celeste O’Connor) is working at a ghost-investigating lab funded by now-billionaire Winston Zeddemore (Hudson). And Podcast (Logan Kim) is working for OG ghostbuster Ray (Aykroyd), who now runs a curio shop that’s a kind of “Antiques Roadshow” for artifacts containing spirits and demons.

One of those items is a sphere brought to the shop by a low-level slacker named Nadeem Razmaadi (a very funny Kumail Nanjiani) in a box of items from his late grandmother. Like the fast-deteriorating ghost containment and storage unit in the fire station, the sphere has kept inside a terrifying spirit who kills people with ice. You know where this is going.

There will be consultation with experts, including Murray returning as Peter Venkman and New York Public Library expert in ancient languages Hubert Wartzki (Patton Oswalt). There will be confrontations with ghosts we’ve met before and new ones, including a swamp dragon and a lonely teenage chess champion named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), who bonds with Phoebe when she is feeling abandoned by being told she has to wait three years before she can go back to work.

As the title suggests, and as the Robert Frost poem at the beginning of the movie underscores, this movie’s villain controls ice, which juts out from the ground like spiky frozen stalagmites. The ghosts and special effect and action are all entertaining, the humor keeps things bouncing along, the fan service is ample but not intrusive, and, well, ghost-bustin’ makes me feel good.

Parents should know that this movie has extended and sometimes disturbing supernatural peril, horror, and violence. There are some graphic images and jump scares. Characters use some strong language and there is some crude humor. A character makes a reference her family dying in a fire.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Gary to be firm with Trevor and Phoebe? What did Phoebe like about Melody? Do you think there are ghosts like the ones in the film? What do you think is the meaning of the famous Robert Frost poem at the beginning of the movie?

If you like this try: the other “Ghostbuster” films, especially the original and the 2016 version with female ghostbusters played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon, and a very, very funny Chris Hemsworth.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Posted on February 14, 2023 at 5:57 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School

What I’ve always loved about the “Ant-Man” movies, aside from the ever-lovable Paul Rudd in the title role, is the slightly hand-made quality, in contrast to the high-tech, hight-gloss, high-CGI aesthetic of the rest of the MCU. The opening of the second film in the series sets the tone. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), under house arrest following the parole violation of saving the world with the Avengers, has created a cardboard thrill ride for his daughter, Cassie. The Ant-Man series had some goofy humor with Scott’s relationship with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale), the cop who can’t decide whether to arrest him or befriend him (Randall Park), and with the discursive stories from his friend and colleague Luis (Michael Peña). The production design truly set the stage with more lived-in spaces than in the other Marvel movies.

Not so much this time. Of course, this is a Marvel movie and there are imaginative and exciting action sequences, especially as Scott develops his use of his powers. It has a nice mix of comedy and action, with characters we are invested in, not just as individuals but in the way they are connected to each other.

As the title tells us, this movie takes place in the least hand-made setting imaginable, the quantum realm. As wonderfully imaginative as it is, suggesting a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland, the Pastoral Symphony section of Disney’s “Fantasia,” the wildest anime creatures of Hayao Miyazaki, and video games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, plus last year’s “Strange World,” there is a pristine quality that removes much of the distinctive charm we expect from Ant-Man. Plus, talk about the forest and the trees. There is just so much detail here, with the endless settings and characters so overwhelming that they make it hard to keep track of what is going on. It’s not enough that a character’s head looks like a stalk of broccoli. Someone has to say, “His head looks like broccoli.” And then we don’t have much to do with him again. There’s a lot to see and much of it is enticing, but not enough of it relates to anything that relates to the stakes, the abilities or vulnerabilities of the good guys or characteristics that would help us understand who they are and how they behave. The issue of understanding each others’ language is handled briskly but other properties are not developed or explored.

The title says it all because the story is more about the place than about what happens there. After a brief prologue, with John Sebastian’s theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter” on the soundtrack, we hear from Scott about how lucky he feels. He is an Avenger, universally loved for saving the world, even if that means people always ask him for photos (with their dogs!) and they don’t always remember which insect superhero he is. His daughter is doing well, he and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are happily in love and she is out saving the world with wonderful programs to help people who need housing or other kinds of support. Scott has written a new book about his life, and enjoys appearing at book-readings.

But it turns out Cassie (Kathryn Newton of “Freaky,” excellent in the role) has been stirring up trouble by appearing at protests and experimenting with a probe into the quantum realm. Before Janet (Michele Pfeiffer), who spent 30 years there and has refused to give any details, can stop her, Scott, Casssie, Hope, Janet, and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are all sucked into the quantum realm, and that is where they stay for almost all of the rest of the film.

There is a long stretch where we meet an assortment of colorful characters. Some of them are fun, including a goofy return from one of the earlier films. It is always good to see William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”) as a frustrated telepath who is way over hearing all of the disgusting thoughts of everyone around him and a jell-o-like character very interested in how many “holes” humanoids have in their bodies and what goes into and out of them. A major star appears for a few minutes for no real purpose.

There’s a very “Star Wars”-ish vibe with the diverse good guys wearing rough cloth and carrying spears and the homogenous and faceless bad guys with the high tech weapons that somehow are not very accurate as the armor-less good guys seem to have no problem dodging the bullets.

As I have often said, superhero movies rise and fall on the quality of the bad guy, who has to be evil enough to be a serious threat but not omni-powerful enough to make it impossible to defeat him. With Thanos gone, the Marvel character Kang the Conqueror has been refashioned in his image. Free of the reality-based limits of time and space, Kang’s calculus about wiping out whole universes is for him just straightening the pictures on the wall — except that it turns out there is a strong element of revenge behind his decisions about who and what needs to be wiped out.

Jonathan Majors, who we’ll be seeing as the antagonist in another huge franchise series in a few weeks, “Creed III,” makes Kang intriguing as he shifts from vulnerable and companionable to canny negotiations to imperious orders to white-hot fury. But it also makes him so all over the place that it is hard to invest in the battles. It does not help that the other side is so complicated that we do not attach to most of the new characters, and characters we love, including Woo and Luis and, worst of all, Hope, are pushed to the side.

“There’s always room to grow,” Scott tells his readers, and those reassuring words come back to inspire the good guys later on. But in this case, taking Ant-Man out of the smaller world of the first two films shows that all that room may not be what this story needs.

NOTE: Stay through the end credits for two extra scenes, one tying the next chapter to some favorite Marvel characters.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with some disturbing images. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: How should Scott have responded to Kang’s threat? Why didn’t Janet tell anyone about her experience?

If you like this, try: the other “Ant-Man” and MCU movies

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Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 5:48 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended occult-style peril and violence, sad death, discussion of parental abandonment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 19, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 24, 2022

Copyright Columbia 2021
They should have called this film “Ghostbusters: Half-life” because we now know that the time it takes to diminish the still-impressive special effects and supernatural action plus a very catchy theme song and off-beat comedy that was cynical but not snarky in the 1984 original to about one-half of the original entertainment value is officially 37 years. Jason Reitman takes over for his father Ivan (who produces) and yet somehow they manage to change what worked in the original, misuse what is new and keep only what shows us how much better the 1984 original was. I mean, how do you put Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd in a movie and not make use of their exceptional talents? How do you make a “Ghostbusters” movie and miss the cynical but not snarky vibe that was the heart of the now-classic? Let me put it this way, but first note: SPOILER ALERT (already spoiled in the trailer, so fair game in my opinion) — when characters from the original show up in this one and say, “Did you miss us?” the answer is “We still do.”

The original film was about three adult scientists played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis (the last two co-wrote the film with Rick Moranis, who also appeared in the film), who with a colleague played by Ernie Hudson start a firm that will capture and imprison ghosts and other supernatural creatures. And it captured something of the gritty In Ghostbusters: Afterlife, it is tweens and teenagers who happen upon some of the ghost-busting equipment when a struggling single mom (Carrie Coon) inherits a near-collapsing old Oklahoma farmhouse from the estranged father who deserted her when she was a child. She moves in with her two children, !5 year old Trevor (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard) and 13-year-old STEM genius Phoebe (Makenna Grace in a lovely performance). They make friends with two local kids Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Podcast (because he is constantly recording podcasts), played by Logan Kim. When Phoebe takes a summer school science class with a bored seismologist (Paul Rudd as Gary) who is investigating the unusual earthquakes in the area, he recognizes some of the equipment she found in the house as belonging to the original Ghostbusters. They were so successful in eradicating the ghosts and other creatures (including the gigantic Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man) from New York that there was not much more for them to do.

You’d think Gary, knowing all this, would not want to open up the ghost-trap, but this not the kind of movie where characters behave in a logical manner because the plot requires them to do many dumb things, except when it requires Phoebe to be an expert at everything from lock-picking to analog mechanics. (She does get a little help from a friendly spirit.)

This one doesn’t come close to the original’s exceptionally deft balance of comedy, supernatural effects, and thrills, mostly because appealing as they are, the kids at the center of the story don’t have the raffish charm or gritty setting of the original team. It’s more of a Nickelodeon version (not up to the standards of Walden or Disney), and the underuse of Coon and Rudd is unforgivable. Like the Stay-Puff marshmallow creature update, this film is the pocket-size version, small in scares, small in laughs, and likely to be forgotten by the time you get to the parking lot.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and extended fantasy/occult peril and violence as well as discussion of parental abandonment.

Family discussion: What surprising history can you learn about your grandparents? Would you listen to Podcast’s podcast? If you were going to make a podcast, what would it be about?

If you like this, try: the original “Ghostbusters” film and the under-appreciate 2016 reboot with Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Chris Hemsworth

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Avengers: Endgame

Posted on April 24, 2019 at 10:42 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: A handful of swear words including one said by a child
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy/comic book action, peril, and violence, battle scenes, characters injured and killed, very sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 12, 2019

Copyright 2019 Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios sticks the landing with “Avengers: Endgame,” a completely satisfying conclusion to the nearly two dozen films, bringing together the stories of a wide range of characters with complex, varied mythologies extending back over decades of stories in comics and other media.

We need to all take a moment to pay tribute to Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios, who has produced them all with a deep understanding of the characters and the fans and a truly remarkable ability to find a nuanced balance between canon and innovation. His willingness to let the individual stories of the characters develop in such different genres and still bring them together when it is time for the Avengers to assemble is an essential element of the success of the series. It would be like having separate film series for Harry Potter, Hermione, Ron, Draco, Professor McGonagall, and Dumbledore, one a romantic comedy, one a thriller, one a crime drama, one a political allegory, and then brought them all together every so often to continue the core story.

I am going to do my best to continue this review without spoilers, but there is one I am sure no one will mind. You do NOT need to stay through the very end as there are no extra scenes following the credits. That seems right for a movie that is such a resounding conclusion and I know you will be happy to get those ten minutes of your life back instead of sitting through the names of the personal chefs of the stars. Now, if you want to see it without knowing anything more than whether I liked it, let me just say here that I thought it was great and you can come back and read the rest after you’ve watched it and want to let me know what you think.

To answer the most frequently asked question: no, three hours does not seem long. It’s really three movies in one, and — fair warning — I could feel my objective critical faculties dissolving after about forty minutes when I realized that it was combining three of my very favorite movie genres in one. First is Marvel superhero stories, of course, with great effects and action, both one-on-one (and I really mean ONE) and big, BIG, battles. Then there’s getting the band back together, with a group of people who once worked together very closely but were not always in agreement (the “Civil War” debate comes back) seek each other out and try to form a team again. And then a heist, or rather, several heists, as the Avengers’ favorite McGuffin is very much a part of the story. There’s a fourth major theme as well, but that’s something I will not spoil except to say that even though they make delightful fun of the way that theme has been portrayed in many other movies, I strongly advise you not to think too deeply about whether the way it is portrayed in this one does any better in terms of consistency or logic.

To answer the second most frequently asked question: yes, you have to have seen the previous movie and as many in the series as possible to get the most out of it. This movie was made by fans for fans and there is tremendous depth that shows how thoroughly this world has been studied and imagined (though only one of the very knowledgable group I spoke to following the film could identify a briefly glimpsed teenage boy toward the end). To confirm the most frequent speculations of those anticipating the film, yes, we will be saying goodbye to some characters, every one of them in a supremely satisfying way, but bring a handkerchief. Yes, we will see some we thought were lost back again, sometimes in a flashback. One of the elements I loved most in this film was those flashbacks, which might give us a different look at scenes we thought we knew.

And the answer to a question that maybe fans forgot to ask, after all these movies: Yes, someone does say, “Avengers, assemble!” I admit it, my heart skipped a beat. It also thumped pretty hard several times and I cried more than once. The skill it takes to fight with Thanos is nothing compared to the skill it took to bring this series to such vibrant, thrilling life, and I am grateful to Stan Lee (yes, he gets a great cameo), Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Kevin Feige, Disney, the Russos, and especially to each of these actors, who bring their A game every time, for assembling this joyous finale.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/comic book peril, action, and violence with monsters, battle scenes, explosions, very sad deaths including death of a parent and fatal sacrifices and a handful of bad words, including one said by a child.

Family discussion: Did Cap make the right choice? What did the characters learn from their past experiences? Which Avenger is your favorite?

If you like this try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Black Panther,” “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted on July 3, 2018 at 4:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 15, 2018

Copyright 2018 Marvel

I like Ant-Man. He’s literally down to earth — after the intergalactic super-villain Thanos plotting the wiping out of half the universe, it’s nice to see our hero up against an ordinary, non-super thug of a bad guy. And it’s also nice to see, 20 movies in, a female superhero in the title of the film. I like the slightly retro, slightly bookish look of the Ant-Man films (outstanding work from production designer Shepherd Frankel). And I like the fun they have with scale. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can do more than shrink himself to the size of an ant and call on his ant friends to help him out. He can make himself and objects around him get bigger or smaller almost instantly. And the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) can do all of that AND fly and use her wrist blasters.

Scott has three more days to go under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet, with frequent check-ins by the local authorities, led by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who can’t seem to decide whether he wants to lock Scott up or become his BFF. He’s going a little stir-crazy, though he enjoys the elaborate games he creates for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The terms of his parole forbid him from having contact with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or his daughter Hope (Lilly), but that has not been a problem. They are not speaking to him after they think he betrayed them by making their technology public in “Captain America: Civil War.”

But something else that happened in “Civil War” is the reason they have to find him again. Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother, the brilliant scientist Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer), became too small and they thought she was lost forever in the “quantum entanglement.” Scott was able to return from the quantum entanglement, though, and they want to find out how and send him back there to see if Janet can be rescued. This is a job for two superheroes, and so it’s time for Hope to suit up.

An all-around crime boss named Sonny Burch (Walt Goggins) wants to stop them from getting the material they need to make that work. A character whose backstory I won’t spoil but who can vibrate through matter also wants it. And the cops are trying to capture the Pyms as well. So, lots of chases, lots of hand-offs and near misses. Director Peyton Reed and his writers (including Rudd) have a lot of fun with scale, sizing the vehicles up and down in an instant and Scott himself getting as big as the Statue of Liberty (which is exhausting for him) and as tiny as an atom. His suit does not always work correctly, though, and his judgment does not always work correctly, either.

The distinctive humor of the first film continues in this one, with Michael Pena returning as Scott’s loquacious fellow ex-con and business partner. His circuitous story-telling was funny in the first film, and it gets funnier here when he is questioned under the effects of what could be a truth serum (whether it is or not is a point of contention). Random topics that also come up for discussion include close-up magic, the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga, loading the dishwasher, and playing the drums. There are some great action sequences, especially one in a kitchen and the chase scenes, and crisp pacing to balance the more laid-back comedy. Its biggest failing is the dumb nicknames for the daughters of the characters. Really, Peanut? Jellybean? Those girls deserve something as witty and distinctive as the rest of the film.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for a brief update on the “Infinity War” cliffhanger, and then all the way to the end for an even briefer and very silly little second extra that has an important clue.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some scary images, mild language, and some parent-child issues.

Family discussion: What changes do you think the quantum experience has on people who travel there? How is Ant-Man different from the other Avengers?

If you like this, try: the first “Ant-Man” and the Avengers movies

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