image from the movie IF

IF

Posted on May 15, 2024 at 2:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rate PG for thematic elements and mild language
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death and illness of parents, injured child
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2024

Classic movie fans will immediately recognize a brief clip watched by one of the characters in “IF.” It is James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey,” a gentle fantasy about a man who is the only one who can see a tall invisible rabbit-looking creature called a pooka, named Harvey. Later in that film, when a doctor tries to assess his mental capacity, Dowd says, “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” Another touchstone for the film is that moment, more heartbreaking for parents than children, when Bing Bong dissolves in Pixar’s “Inside Out.” Writer/director/star John Krasinski says he made “IF” because he realized his daughters were on the cusp of that end of childhood when imagination is real to them. The movie’s poignance will be felt most acutely by parents, aware of their own fleeting moments of magic as children and, while looking forward to the milestones of their own children, missing the magic and even the exhaustion of the early years.

The title “IF” mostly stands for “Invisible Friend,” but also a little bit stands for the word we use to conjure up infinite possibilities. The world Krasinski has conjured up here is beguiling, with a handmade, retro feel. The Paramount logo at the beginning looks like a child’s finger-painting and the movie itself is a smudgy valentine, all heart, whimsy, and charm. If the message is a bit messy and the logic not quite sound, for me that was more than made up for by the tenderness.

It takes place in present-day-ish, no cell phones, no internet searches, an apartment building and apartment decor that dates back to the 40s or 50s. The soundtrack includes some classic songs, played on, stay with me kids, a vinyl record on a Victor Victrola with a trumpet horn, like they made a hundred years ago. Cal wears suspenders and a hat that’s vintage, not hipster. The light is soft. And there is a beguiling enchanted amusement park on the beach.

Cailey Fleming is lovely as Bea, a 12-year-old girl staying with her grandmother (the always-wonderful Fiona Shaw, a long way from Harry Potter’s aunt) while her dad joke-aficionado father (Krasinski) is in the hospital. As we see early on, Bea’s adored mother died when she was young, so her father’s illness is hitting her very hard. When her grandmother tries to welcome her into the apartment she once shared with both parents by offering her the paints she used to enjoy, Bea stiffly says she is too told for them now.

She goes for a walk and sees what she thinks might be a girl her age. But she is not. Bea discovers that Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is an imaginary friend who looks like a girl-sized talking butterfly, who lives in an apartment in the same building where Bea is staying, with Cal (Ryan Reynolds) and Blue (Steve Carrell) a gigantic, fluffy purple imaginary friend with a sweet, goofy smile. Cal explains that there are a lot of imaginary friends who have been outgrown by the children who created them. Cal and Blossom are trying to find new children for the abandoned imaginary friends, so they don’t disappear. Bea is captivated by the idea and volunteers to help.

Krasinski assembled an all-star cast to provide voices for the amusingly varied group of imaginary friends, including George Clooney as an astronaut, Bradley Cooper as an ice cube, Emily Blunt as a unicorn, Awkwafina as a bubble, and the late Louis Gossett, Jr. as a bear named Lewis. Cal, Bea, and Lewis interview the IFs to try to match them up with children who share their interests and need their skills. But it turns out that may not be the answer they are looking for. The one they find will be as reassuring to kids as it is to parents.

Parents should know that, as in many stories with children at the center, this one begins with a sad loss of a parent. And her remaining parent is also ill. and in the hospital for surgery.

Family discussion: What stories do you like to tell? Which IF is your favorite and why? What IF will you imagine?

If you like this, try: “Inside Out” and “Tuck Everlasting”

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Free Guy

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 12:05 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Language|Crude/Suggestive References|Strong Fantasy Violence)
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended video-game violence with powerful real and fantasy weapons, guns, chases, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 12, 2021

Copyright 20th Century Studios 2021
In 1966, Tom Stoppard gave us “Hamlet” from the perspective of two of its most minor characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” a meditation on the impossibility of understanding the sometimes random, sometimes malicious forces of life, not as grim as it sounds. In “The Lion King 1 1/2,” Disney gave us the same story as the original “Lion King” but from the perspective of two of the main character’s sidekicks, the wart hog and the meerkat. The theme is basically building on a popular franchise, but it does expand on the story. In “Free Guy,” this idea goes further by giving a video game’s NPC (non-playable character) who is so generic his name is Guy (Ryan Reynolds) agency and that most human of gifts, the chance to grow and learn and love. Reynolds, who also produced, is never less than terrific here in a role ideally suited for his gifts. It’s easy to forget how subtle an actor he is, even in wild comedies like “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and larger than life roles like “Deadpool.” At each stage, from a one-note character barely more than some code and pixels to the first suggestions of mingled longing triumphing over fear, he calibrates with exquisite precision exactly where these nascent emotions and increasing confidence are progressing.

Guy is blissfully ignorant that his only purpose in the digital world of Free City is to hit the floor when the bank robbers, avatars of the real-world players, break in and start shooting. (Listen carefully to the robbers’ voices for some surprise appearances.) He wakes up so happy every morning we almost expect him to start singing “Everything is Awesome,” like Chris Pratt in “The LEGO Movie.” He is happy because he does not know there is another way to be. He gets up. He has some cereal and feeds his goldfish. He selects one of the identical blue button-down shirts and khaki slacks from his closet. He stops at a local cafe to get coffee. He goes to work as a bank teller, with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howrey), a security guard, and then the next group of robbers break in.

And then, one day, he sees The Girl (Jodie Comer of “Killing Eve”). She Molotov Girl, is the avatar for Millie, a gamer and programmer whose goal in the game is not racking up points, which players get from robbing and killing people. She is looking for proof that Antwan (Taika Waititi, having fun as a temperamental tyrant) the head of the computer game company cheekily called Soonami, stole the code she developed for a different game with Keys (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things,” very appealing), her former business partner. Keys now works for Soonami, with his friend and sometimes competitor Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

The avatars in the game, representing the real-life players, wear sunglasses. Guy puts on a pair and for the first time sees what the players see, a Pokemon Go-style assortment of goals and prizes and attributes. Director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) has a lot of fun going back and forth between the world inside the game and the real world of Soonami, Keys, and Millie, plus some glimpses of the players behind their vastly more badass avatars. Gamers will find a lot of clever references to their world, especially the creation of a new character near the end who looks very familiar but is not fully programmed. And anyone who’s been to a blockbuster in the past few years will enjoy some surprise cameos. “Don’t have a good day; have a GREAT day.” This movie is smarter than it needs to be, and it is very satisfying to see Guy confront existential questions and discover, as lucky humans do, that it is love and helping others that makes life meaningful. It may start with as small a step as a Henley shirt or a cappuccino. All it takes is wanting more.

Parents should know that this film includes extended video-game action and violence with many real and fantasy weapons, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Which game would you prefer? What kind of game would you create?

If you like this, try: “Ready Player One,” “Jumanji” and “The LEGO Movie”

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The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Posted on June 15, 2021 at 7:40 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style violence with guns, knives, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 16, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
The reunion that meant the most to me in “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” was not Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson reprising their roles from the 2017 original but the re-uniting of Desperado stars Selma Hayek and Antonio Banderas. They are still two of the most sizzlingly combustible actors in the world, and it is a delight to see them together again, if a reminder that their micro-budgeted first film together had more electrifying energy than this macro-budget extravaganza.

But the focus of the story is on Reynolds, who returns as by-the-book, triple-A rated, fasten-your-seatbelt bodyguard Michael Bryce, and Jackson as Darius Kinkaid, a “rules, what rules?”-type hitman, plus Hayek as his even more out-of-control wife Sonia. In other words, the usual superego vs. id match-up in action comedies featuring a lot of chases and explosions and quippy banter.

In the first film Bryce was in disgrace for failing to protect a world leader, and reduced to protecting wealthy businessmen when he was assigned to Kinkaid, on his way to testify against a ruthless dictator in exchange for getting Sonia out of prison. This time, we see that experience has severely traumatized Bryce, as his therapist exasperatedly tells him to go off on a vacation somewhere far away from bodyguarding and especially far away from guns and killing.

But no one would buy a ticket and go back into a theater for the first time in more than a year to see that. So of course as soon as Bryce settles into a beach chair, Sonia arrives, guns blazing (a lot of killing of innocent bystanders in this movie) to get Bryce to help her free her husband from some kidnappers.

After that, it’s just pretty much bang/bang/banter (“Capri? Like the pants?”), bang/chase/explosion/wisecrack (“Your mouth needs an exorcism”) in a variety of colorful locations. There are some references and cameos from the original film that only the most devoted fans will find of interest. What there is of plot is unlikely to be of much interest beyond an engine to get us to the next shoot-out or capture. Frank Grillo and Caroline Goodall are underused as American operatives who decide to use the Kinkaids for their own purposes and even Banderas cannot make much of his generic bad guy. Rebecca Front is terrific in a brief opening scene as Bryce’s frustrated therapist, but then disappears for the rest of the film. The action scenes are serviceably staged but what works best here, unsurprisingly, is the fun that Reynolds and Jackson have with their roles. Jackson could probably bark out profanities better than just about anyone while doing a backflip and knitting a sweater, but the cool thing is that he never brings anything less than his top game to it and it is never less than delicious. And Reynolds has the very rare ability to make vulnerability funny. Pass the popcorn. Summer movies are back.

Parents should know that this is an intense and gory action comedy with chases, explosions, guns, and knives. Many characters are injured and killed with some graphic images. Reynolds spends much of the movie covered in blood spatter. There are family issues, and there is constant very strong language. The portrayal of mental illness is insensitive a best, but this is not a movie that worries about sensitivity. There are sexual references and explicit (humorous) situations and discussions of fertility.

Family discussion: How did Bryce’s conflicts with his father affect his view of himself? What would you say to your future self?

If you like this, try: the first film in the series and other action comedies like “Spy” and “Mr. Right”

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The Croods: A New Age

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 2:06 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril, minor injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: December 29, 2020

Copyright Dreamworks 2020

The Croods: A New Age is the sequel to the animated film about the prehistoric family is sharply funny, exciting, warm-hearted, and a great watch for the whole family.

We left the Croods at the end of the first film with Grug (Nicolas Cage) finally welcoming in a new family member, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). The family, which sleeps in a pile every night and can form a kill circle in an instant is, Grug thinks, situated as well as possible to find food and to avoid becoming food. But then the climate changes and they have to find another place to live. On the other side of a wall, they discover a kind of paradise, with plenty of food conveniently growing in rows. It is the home of the Betterman family (“emphasis on the Better“), Hope (Leslie Mann), Phil (Peter Dinklage), and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

The Bettermans, who have discovered tools and simple machines, have an elaborate tree-house, cultivated crops, and the wall, which keeps them safe. They have the concept of “privacy,” sleeping in separate rooms. They also have the concept of “rooms.” Also “windows,” and an amusing running joke is the way Grug’s son Thunk (Clark Duke) is mesmerized by the “screen” that’s just a hole in the wall.

The Bettermans are aghast at the lack of refinement of the primitive Croods and gently try to urge them to move on. Except for Guy, who they knew when he was a child. Guy is happy to be reunited with them, especially his childhood friend Dawn. He starts dressing like Phil Betterman.

We might expect Grug’s daughter Eep (Emma Stone) to be jealous of Dawn. But this movie wisely makes Eep and Dawn instant best friends in a funny and sweet scene where they discover what it means to know another girl. It also wisely does not make the Bettermans or the Croods all right or all wrong. Balancing the wish to protect your children from any possible harm with the importance of their learning to be independent and developing a sense of curiosity and adventure.

Basically, there are just two jokes here, but they are funny every time. It is funny when we see that the Croods are just like us (parents want to take care of children and children want to try new things, teenagers have a lot to say to each other but do not always have the words, girlfriends’ voices sometimes get a little screechy when they’re excited), and it is funny to see them discover for the first time in human history what we take for granted (privacy, screens). But what makes this movie worth a rewatch is the constant invention of its visuals, the exceptional detail in the characters, animals, and landscapes, its superb voice talent, and its touching depiction of the foundational ties of family and community.

Parents should know that this film includes some peril and mild injuries and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Is your family more like the Croods or The Bettermans? What would you pick for your tribal name? What is your family’s motto? Ask family members for the stories behind their scars.

If you like this, try: “The Croods,” and the “Ice Age” movies and my interview with this film’s director, Joel Crawford.

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Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Posted on May 9, 2019 at 5:51 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, potty references, mild words (jeez, hell, etc.)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Fantasy "drug," caffeine, brief drug humor
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/cartoon-style violence, parental loss
Diversity Issues: Stereotype of disabled villain
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 5, 2019

Copyright 2019 Legendary Pictures

People around me were gasping, hooting, and laughing at various details that passed right by me during “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” so if you are already a fan of the Pokémon franchise, the cards, the series, the games, you will be better off reading a review from someone as deeply enmeshed as you are. If you are only vaguely aware of the characters and premises of the international merchandising monster that began as “pocket monsters” and now has an entire universe of things to buy (more than 300 million copies sold of just one of there many, many games alone), then stick with me and we will try to assess this new movie on its own merits.

That would make merit number one for non- or not-yet fans the non-stop commentary of Ryan Reynolds, who provides the voice of the title character, a kind of PG version of his iconic Deadpool performance. After that, we have an appealing human lead character, Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith of “Paper Towns” and “The Getdown.” He interacts believably with the CGI characters and even manages a genuine character arc as we see him become less isolated and more vulnerable and authentic.

We first see Tim as a quiet loner working as an insurance appraiser. He lives in a world where people often catch or partner with Pokémon characters, something like pets or sidekicks or Phillip Pullman-style daemons. He once dreamed of being a Pokémon trainer (we learn more about that as we see the unchanged childhood bedroom in his dad’s apartment. But when he is out with a friend and has the chance to “catch” a Pokémon, it does not go well, probably because his heart is not in it.

Tim receives a phone call informing him that his estranged father, a detective who lives in Ryme City, has been killed in an accident. He travels to Ryme City, where a wheelchair-bound billionaire and philanthropist named Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) has established a utopian community for humans and Pokémon to live in harmony. In a welcome video on the train, Clifford explains that since he became disabled, the connection to the Pokémon has helped him to become “a better version of myself.” He wants Ryme City to make it possible for all humans to have that experience.

The police chief (Ken Watanabe) gives Tim the keys to his father’s apartment and tries to comfort him. But Tim shrugs off any condolences, insisting he has no real sense of loss for the father he has hardly ever seen. At the apartment, Tim meets a mysterious fuzzy yellow Pokémon Pikachu who has amnesia but who, unlike the other Pokémon creatures, speaks fluent English (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) that only Tim can understand. Pikachu wears a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat with Tim’s father’s contact information inside. He believes Tim’s father is still alive. Tim is at first reluctant to work with him, but some clues, some escapes, and an attractive young journalist (Kathryn Newton as Lucy) who tells him, “You just walked into quite a story,” persuade him to try to find out what really happened.

Their investigations take them to a mysterious lab in a remote valley, to Clifford’s office, where he shows them a detailed VR depiction of the accident, an encounter with Mr. Mime, who may be a witness but won’t say (hah!), and Ryme City’s most famous annual event, a pride parade and carnival celebrating Pokémon.

Tim’s increased confidence and connection to others is a sharp contrast to Clifford’s notion of what makes someone a better version of himself. But it may be hard to notice that in the midst of non-stop special effects and elaborate, video-game style action sequences. For fans, this may be a B+, but for outsiders without a gaming controller, it’s a couple of grades lower.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/cartoon-style peril and violence (no one badly hurt) with some scary monsters, themes of absent or neglectful fathers, some fantasy drug material and brief drug humor, and some potty jokes and mild bad language (hell, jeez, etc.) SPOILER ALERT: The movie also perpetuates some tired and obsolete cliches about disabled villains whose evil acts are inspired by an effort to be “cured.”

Family discussion: What would the better version of you look like? Would you like to be a detective?
Which Pokémon would you like to have as a partner and why?

If you like this, try: “Monster Trucks” and the Detective Pikachu video game

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