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

The Water Man

Posted on May 6, 2021 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, scary images, peril and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, references to child abuse and neglect, critical illness of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 8, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
“The Water Man” is a rare film that exquisitely captures the liminal moment at the end of childhood when we are old enough to begin to understand some of the complications and unsolvable problems of life but still young enough to believe in magic. Lonnie Chavis (“Magic Camp,” “This is Us”) plays 11-year-old Gunner, who is very close to his loving mother (Rosario Dawson) but not aware enough to realize that she is very sick. He is creating a graphic novel about a detective who must solve his own murder and he is fascinated with clues and deductions, but cannot recognize what is heartbreakingly clear to us as we see an IV stand in the bedroom and suspect that the colorful turbans hide a bald head.

Gunner is less close to his father Amos, played by director David Oyelowo, a military officer just returned from a long detail in Japan. His mother loves his art; his father wants him to toss a football.

When he realizes how sick his mother is, Gunner is determined to save her by tracking down a mythic creature known as The Water Man, said to have eternal life. A slightly older girl named Jo (Amiah Miller of “War for the Planet of the Apes”) tells stories of The Water Man, pointing to a scar on her neck as proof that she has not just seen him but been close enough for him to wound her. Gunner does not realize, as we do, that Jo, who lives in a tent by herself, is not as confident and independent as she seems. He agrees to pay her to take him to The Water Man, who is thought to live deep in the forest.

Like the Halloween scene in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this film lives in the perspective of a young character, while allowing us to understand more than he does. Oyelowo and his Director of Cinematography, Matthew J. Lloyd, use color to tell what Oyelowo describes as an “elemental” story. Gunner’s mother is swathed in warm yellows and oranges, echoed in the backpack Gunner carries on his quest. The inside of Jo’s tent is a deep red. The forest is lush green, but the colors get less saturated and more muted as he gets further from home.

The young actors are both exceptional, very natural and believable, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. But there is also strong support from an outstanding cast that includes Alfred Molina as an adult who has spent years looking for The Water Man and Maria Bello as the local sheriff who helps Amos try to find his son. Oyelowo is clearly inspired by “ET” (note Gunner’s ET lunchbox), and does a good job of creating a sense of wonder and showing us how all of us, at any age, can struggle to adapt to the unacceptable. Being present for those we love, the families we create, learning to love others for who they are instead of who we want them to be, all come together in a scene as warm as the sun-colors that surround Gunner’s mother.

Parents should know that this film concerns the critical illness of a parent. There is some peril and a creepy fantasy character along with some jump-out-at-you surprises, some schoolyard language, and shoplifting, and there are references to child abuse and neglect.

Family discussion: What are some of the myths or folklore of your community? Where do these stories come from?

If you like this, try: “Bridge to Terabithia,” “Time Bandits,” “Finding ‘Ohana,” and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”

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Top Five

Posted on December 11, 2014 at 5:59 pm

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use
Copyright 2014 Paramount Pictures
Copyright 2014 Paramount Pictures

Why is it that we love to talk about our top five? Is it because it gives us a sense of order in the midst of chaos? Is it because we feel that if we can somehow distill the whole world into a definitive top five (with a possible but un-canonical sixth position just to make it interesting), that will reveal something essential about the person doing the ranking?

Writer/director/star Chris Rock plays Andre, a stand-up comic turned wildly successful movie star, with a series of dumb comedy blockbuster hits where he plays Hammy the Bear, an ursine cop with a gun as quick as his wisecracks and catch phrases. Like the director in “Sullivan’s Travels” and the stand-up comic turned actor and filmmaker in “Stardust Memories,” Andre wants to do something serious and meaningful. He has made a new film called “Uprize,” a drama based on the real-life slave rebellion in late 18th century Haiti, and he is on a publicity tour to promote it. He is also about to get married to a reality star (Gabrielle Union as the exquisitely airbrushed and relentlessly determined Erica), who has made every element of the wedding and their lives together a branding opportunity. And he has agreed to spend the day with Chelsea, a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) who begins by asking him why he isn’t funny anymore and wants him to describe what it felt like to hit bottom before he became sober.

Andre and Chelsea travel all over the New York, visiting the inner city neighborhood where his friends and family jockey between pride and resentment. The girlfriend who was there at the beginning is sorry she quit before he hit it big. The old friends tease him about how he was never the funniest one in the group and remind him to keep it real. Andre also has a talk with some older men on the street. One calls him “Hollywood” — but asks for money. We learn his relationship to Andre. It is understated, but significant.

No one is buying tickets to “Uprize.” And “everyone in the barbershop wants to see in the bear costume” for Hammy 4.

Rock has often seemed awkward or uncomfortable on screen, even in “Head of State,” which he directed, especially in scenes with women. But here he shows a welcome naturalness and confidence. We got a glimpse of those qualities in his best previous performance, “2 Days in New York,” which has a similar intimate, improvisational vibe. This time, playing a central character who shares some of his experiences — and some of his friends, with Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld making cameos — Rock’s performance is nuanced, thoughtful, very, very funny, and touching as well.  It is the funniest movie of the year, in part because it is so sharply observed.  Andre may think the best way to deliver a message is with a serious drama, but Chris Rock knows better.

Parents should know that this film has extremely strong, explicit, and crude language including the n-word, extremely explicit sexual references and situations, and very crude humor, substance abuse including drugs, and mild comic peril.

Family discussion: What will Andre do next? Would you go to see his movie about the slave rebellion? What is “rigorous honesty?” Who’s in your top five and why is it fun to try to rank your favorites?

If you like this, try: “Sullivan’s Travels,” “Stardust Memories” and Chris Rock’s stand-up performance films and television series

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Comedy Movies -- format

Gimme Shelter

Posted on January 23, 2014 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving mistreatment, some drug content, violence, and language, all concerning teens
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Abuse including attack by a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 24, 2014
Date Released to DVD: April 28, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00HW3EJQE

vanessa hudgens gimme shelterVanessa Hudgens gives a touching and sensitive performance in this fact-based story of a pregnant, homeless teenager. Both Hudgens and writer/director Ron Krauss moved into a shelter so that they could do justice to the stories of these young women.  That dedication and integrity lifts this above the Afterschool Special formula for an affecting drama that shows us the resilience and courage of girls who have to learn very quickly to be the loving parents they never had.

Hudgens plays Agnes, who insists on being called “Apple,” for reasons we do not learn until the end of the story.  We first see her hacking off her hair, whispering reassurance to herself as she gets in a cab to run away from her shrieking, strung-out mother (a feral Rosario Dawson).  She is going to find her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser), who has never seen her before.  She briefly stays with him, but it is clear that she does not fit in with his elegant wife and pampered children.  They do not trust her and she is not ready to trust anyone.  When they find out that she is pregnant, they pressure her to have an abortion.  She runs away again.

In a hospital, recovering from an accident, she meets a kind priest (James Earl Jones), who brings her to a shelter based on Several Sources, established by Kathy DiFiore, who, as she explains in one scene, was once homeless herself and as soon as she was able to take care of herself devoted her life to taking care of young women in need of support.  DiFiore is played by the always-outstanding Ann Dowd (“Compliance,” “Garden State”), with enormous compassion and strength.  Apple has a lot to overcome, including the fury of her mother, who wants her back so she can get the welfare money Apple and her baby will receive, but most of all, she has to learn how to be a part of a family, how to trust others, and how to trust herself.  Somewhere inside her, all along, there is the hope of a different life, almost overshadowed by the fear that she does not deserve it.  Hudgens shows us Apple’s ferocity, her vulnerability, all the ways she has been beaten down and all of the strength she has to keep coming back.  The result is a story that is touching and inspiring, with photos in the closing credits to show us that happy endings are not just for fairy tales.

Parents should know that this movie’s themes include homelessness, drug abuse, child abuse, teen pregnancy, abandonment, and homelessness.  There are portrayals of a brutal attack by a parent, a car crash, and tense and angry confrontations.

Family discussion:  Why did Agnes decide to be called Apple?  What did the girls learn from reading their files?  What did she find in the shelter that she could not find anywhere else?

If you like this, try: “Riding in Cars with Boys,” “Juno,” and “Homeless to Harvard”

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Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Stories about Teens

Trance

Posted on April 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Violence and peril with guns, fire, chases, car accident, taser, choking, and torture, some very disturbing images, characters injured and killed, graphic wounds, dead bodies
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 12, 2013
Date Released to DVD: July 22, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00D3DJI3Q

Before he was the establishment figure who won Oscars for prestige projects (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and masterminded the fabulous opening ceremonies for the London Olympics that had the Queen and James Bond jumping out of a plane, Danny Boyle was a skillful director of highly styled and deliciously nasty films about not-so-deliciously nasty people doing dreadful things (“Trainspotting” and “Shallow Grave”).  His latest is “Trance,” a deliciously nasty heist film about the theft of a 27 million dollar masterpiece by Goya, tellingly titled Witches in the Air, and about the mistrust and betrayal that comes next.

Part of the fun comes from having our assumptions turned upside down — and then inside out.  So I don’t want to give too much away.  The title comes from a hypno-therapist named Elizabeth (the stunningly beautiful Rosario Dawson),  brought into the den of thieves because one of them has misplaced the painting and, thanks to a head injury, cannot remember where he stashed it.  The problem faced by alpha-thief Franck (ferret-like Vincent Cassel) is how to arrange it so that Elizabeth can get inside the amnesiac’s head to find the missing painting but not let her find that that by doing so she is abetting a rather notorious crime.  Dawson, too often underused, gets a chance to show what she is capable of in a performance of intelligence and subtlety.  As she explained in an interview, “I wanted to be specific on who she was and make her disappear at the same time.”

The film itself becomes a sort of trance, with deeply saturated colors that shimmer like a dream, and Dawson’s magnetic voice.  We, like the characters, must begin to mistrust what we see and what we think we know as the story turns upside down, inside out, and then, as soon as we think we’ve figured it out, Rubik cubes our minds again.  This is a movie you’ll be talking about on the way home, and probably shivering about in your own nightmare.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and explicit situations, very explicit nudity, violence including guns, taser, car accident, torture, fire, characters injured and killed, disturbing and graphic images, very strong language

Family discussion: What do the title and subject of the stolen painting have to do with the story? What do you think will happen next?

If you like this, try: “Inside Man” and “Side Effects”

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