Sing 2

Posted on December 22, 2021 at 11:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude material, mild peril/violence
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: Some humor about a disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 28, 2022

Copyright 2021 Illumination
This sequel wisely jettisons the less interesting plot lines from the original, the backstories of the animals with dreams of singing before cheering audiences, in favor of what worked best the first time, the performances themselves. “Sing 2” is all about putting on a show, and it begins with a smashing version of Prince’s “Let’s go Crazy.” There’s a lot happening, but take a moment to notice the costumes worn by the performers. They were created by high fashion house Rodarte.

Koala impressario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) has a bigger dream than ever. He wants to take his performers to the entertainment capital of the world, Redshore City, with its enormous and ultra-glamorous theater, the Crystal Tower. It is run by Mr. Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), a tough-talking wolf who only agrees to let them put on their show if they can promise to deliver the lion rock star-turned recluse Clay Calloway (Bono). Moon promises that he will, though he has no idea where Calloway is or how to persuade him to return to performing. There’s a bigger problem. He has the performers, including porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), pig and mother of innumerable piglets Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), and shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly). But despite what they promised Mr. Crystal, they do not have a show, only a concept from Gunter (Nick Kroll) of a space opera titled “Out of this World.” They don’t have enough information to tell the crew what kind of sets to build except that it is set on four different planets and there is a spaceship.

All of which sets up various shenanigans as the little group tries to keep Mr. Crystal from finding out what is going on as they track down Clay Calloway and get the show ready. There are some additional complicating factors. Crystal’s spoiled daughter Porsha wants to be in the show even though her acting is terrible (she can sing, though; she is voiced by pop star Halsey), and her daddy thinks she should have whatever she wants. Johnny cannot learn the complicated moves from the choreographer. Meena’s new co-star is an arrogant Yak (Eric André), who intimidates her. The ice cream guy, though, has her bashful heart fluttering.

All of this is done with heart and humor that will delight young audiences while the parents will get a kick out of the eclectic mix of songs, from Grammy-winning favorites to esoteric Indies and even a little Prokofiev. The audition scene is like a lightning round of Name That Tune. Bono’s rumble makes a great vocal contribution as Clay, and the poignance of his grief gives the story greater heft. There’s even a new U2 song on the soundtrack to underscore in both senses of the word) the way that music can heal and connect. It adds to the ebullience of the film, and like all great music, inspires calls for an encore.

Parents should know that there is some cartoon-style peril and threats of violence and some mild humor about a character’s disability, in addition to some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which character is your favorite? What musical show would you like to create? What is Porsha good at?

If you like this, try: the first “Sing” and the Trolls movies.

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Black Widow

Posted on July 5, 2021 at 4:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 Some Language|Intense Violence/Action|Thematic Material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, references to torture and abuse of children, characters are assassins, chases, explosions, guns
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2021

Copyright 2021 Marvel Studios
We’ve waited a long time to find out how Natasha became the Black Widow. While we got to know the male Avengers through individual origin stories about Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man, Natasha was different. We first saw the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tied to a chair looking very much the victim as she was confronted by some vetough and powerful-looking men. But we learn, as they do, that she is very much in control of the situation. We also learn that unlike the other Avengers, she has no special powers from a radioactive spider-bite or government potion, some fancy equipment, or being born a god. She has her wits and courage and some of what Liam Neeson might call a very special set of skills. Through the Avengers films we saw that she was the heart of the group, kind, empathetic, willing to sacrifice herself out of a sense of integrity and, perhaps, redemption.

We wanted to know more. But it took time to persuade Marvel Studios, and then, just as we were all ready to get Natasha a film of her own, its release was delayed in the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic, so it was not until now, a year later, that it is finally here. Even with all that has gone on, “Black Widow” quickly puts us back in the world of the Avengers. And, it continues Marvel’s cleverest strategy, allowing each character to inhabit a world that is distinctive in tone and atmosphere as it maintains a clear, strong central sense of its world.

Who could have guessed that we would find Natasha in 1995 Ohio? But that is where we start, a young girl with blue hair (Ever Anderson, a believable young Johansson) riding her bicycle home at dinner time. She greets her younger sister affectionately, and then, when the littler girl hurts her knee, their mother, like mothers since mothers began, kisses it to make it better. But this mother does something a little different. She tells her daughters that pain makes you stronger. And then what seems like a typical suburban family dinner turns out more than a little different. The father comes home and tells the family something they have clearly prepared for has happened and they have to leave right away. And they do leave, the house and the country, in an exciting, if improbably escape. We will soon learn that this may not meet any traditional definition of “family” at all. Indeed, questions about what is family and what we need from families is as central to this film as the chases, fights, exotic locations, and fight scenes.

We skip ahead 21 years from that wild escape. Natasha is living off the grid following the “divorce” of the Avengers. She is considered an enemy following the assassination of King T’Chaka of Wakanda in “Captain America: Civil War.” But a package from Yelena (Florence Pugh) brings her back into the fight. Starting with a fight with Yelena herself, one of the film’s highlights. The scenes with the two of them crackle and bolster hope that the rumors of a Yelena affiliation with the Avengers.

Director Cate Shortland balances the action scenes — a prison break is a highlight — with family moments that are sometimes very funny (wait for Yelena on The Pose, and David Harbour as Natasha’s closest equivalent to a “good father”) and sometimes touching (Rachel Weisz as the mother equivalent, a pig-experimenting scientist who takes time to add a dramatic smokey eye when she dons a jumpsuit for action).

And of course there is a powerful adversary with a high-tech lair and a private army that holds the key to Natasha’s persona. It tells you all you need to know that those scenes are fine, but will likely leave you waiting a little impatiently for the next moments with the family, reminding us again that family may be frustrating, may even be dysfunctional, but those we are born into and those we choose are still where home is.

Parents should know that as with all superhero movies, this included extended peril and action, which characters injured and killed. There is some strong language and references to forced sterilization.

Family discussion: Why did Natasha take a different path than other people around her? Is there a key to unlocking fear?

If you like this, try: the Avengers movies and some of Johansson’s other films like “Jojo Rabbit,” “Her,” and “Hail, Ceasar”

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JoJo Rabbit

Posted on October 24, 2019 at 5:46 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language
Profanity: Strong and offensive language including anti-Semitic insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing peril and violence including a child injured in an explosion, wartime violence, bombs. guns, tragic deaths
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: February 17, 2020
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

The first thing you need to know is that writer/director Taika Waititi does not play HItler in “JoJo Rabbit,” and it does not portray the real Adolf Hitler as a comic figure. Waititi plays a child’s imaginary version of Hitler. He has more in common with Chris O’Dowd’s imaginary friend character in his very funny and endearing Moone Boy. In both, the adult male figure is a child’s idea of what a man is, or what he would like to be when he grows up. In the case of Jojo Rabbit, the nickname for the 10-year-old Austrian boy at the center of the film, he is especially in need of a role model because of the uncertainty in his own life and the upheavals that are all around him. So it makes sense that he would respond by clinging to something that seems strong and structured and certain. And that is why when we first see him, he is looking in the mirror to admire himself in his Hitler Youth uniform, very excited to learn all about becoming an active member of the Nazi party. His imaginary friend represents what he would like to be, but JoJo is a child, so to us, his version of Hitler is ten-year-old’s fantasy. Which means he is very silly.

I tell you all this because for the first half hour or so of “JoJo Rabbit” you might think you’re watching some sort of “Springtime for Hitler,” from “The Producers.” But it turns out that while “JoJo Rabbit” does portray the Nazis in a heightened, satiric, silly manner, this is not an insensitive or superficial film. But by the end, it wants to pack a wallop, as it should, and it does.

JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis, in a knockout of a performance) lives with his mother, Rosie (a career-best Scarlett Johansson, warm and witty). His father is off in the war but has not been heard from for a long while. JoJo and his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) go off to Hitler Youth camp, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), assisted by Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). The other boys laugh at him when he cannot bring himself to kill a rabbit (prompting his derisive nickname), and so to prove his courage, urged on by the imaginary Hitler, he takes a risk that leads to his being injured in an explosion, leaving scars on his face. He cannot return to school, so Rosie takes him to the Hitler Youth office and insists that Klenzdorf give him a job.

And then something happens that turns JoJo’s ideas about strength, courage, and power upside down. His ideas about Jews, too, though that takes a while. Waititi handles the tonal shift with great skill, and by the end of the film, the heightened tone blends seamlessly with the surreal absurdity of war, making the conclusion as meaningful to us as it is to the characters.

Parents should know that this movie is set in the last months of WWII and has wartime violence including guns and bombs, portrayal of virulent and systemic anti-Semitism. A child is injured in an explosion and a parent is murdered. Characters use strong language, drink alcohol, and smoke.

Family discussion: Why did JoJo imagine Hitler as an imaginary friend? What made him change his mind about Elsa? Why didn’t Elsa tell him what she knew about the letters?

If you like this, try: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows from the same writer/director. You may also enjoy satiric takes on war like “Oh, What a Lovely War,” “M*A*S*H,” and “King of Hearts.”

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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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Ghost in the Shell

Posted on March 30, 2017 at 11:11 pm

Copyright DreamWorks 2017

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe if you are a long-time fan of the “Ghost in the Shell” mange by Masamune Shirow and anime and are yet still not offended at the casting of a white actress in a Japanese story you might enjoy seeing a big-budget version of the story with very high-end design and special effects. I am new to the franchise and I was bored. Like a lot of video game movies, it loses the story and characters in a barrage of visual effects and shoot-outs.

Scarlett Johansson plays Major, who used to be a person but is now robot with a human brain or a human brain with a robot body. People do a lot of explaining in this movie, but never about the stuff we would like to have explained. So one character tells us that Major is not a machine but a weapon in the fight against cyber-terrorism. But we never find out why Major’s clothes keep disappearing when she goes into battle. Or why a robot breathes and cries.

In an early scene, we see businessmen at an expensive dinner, being served by elegant but not un-sexy robot geishas. I hope you have seen enough movies to know that when one of them arrogant insists that “There is nothing I can’t do, nothing I can’t know, nothing I can’t be,” he is not going to be around much longer. Some gunmen break in and start shooting, and Major arrives to fight them.

Major was once a human woman. When she was injured in the terrorist attack that killed her parents, her body could not be saved but in a pioneering experiment by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), she is turned into a cyborg. At least that is the story she has been told. She has flashes of what could be memories but it seems to her as though there is thick fog over her memories “and I can’t see through it.” Dr. Ouelet is very proud of Major, almost maternal. And Major has a partner, Batou (Pilou Asbæk). Where she is a robot with a human brain, he is a human with mechanical parts.

The man/robot/operating system/entity behind the attack is cerebral hacking and killing more people as Major is experiencing what she calls “glitches,” especially after she does a risky “deep dive” into the network of the hacked geisha robot. But are they glitches or “Total Recall”/”Bourne”-style flashes of memory?

When the comic first appeared, some of these issues were cutting edge but they have been so thoroughly hashed out in so many movies (and in real life) that most of it is as outdated as a VHS video of “WarGames.” The issue of consent is more timely, as Major has to affirmatively accept various risks and procedures (like all of those “I agree” boxes you have to check every time you update your software), but the movie is too busy showing us zippy Pokemon Go-style virtual ads all over the city to spend any thought on it, or anything else, for that matter.  It is a shame that a movie about the spark of human consciousness that remains inside a machine is itself a machine without any evidence of humanity at all.

Parents should know that this film has constant sci-fi/action style peril and violence, guns, explosions, fire, terrorism, a suicide, murder, with characters injured and killed, and some graphic and disturbing images, some nudity, prostitutes and sexual predator, smoking, and drinking. There has been some controversy over the casting of non-Asian actors. Scarlett Johansson responded “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.” The director of the anime version also supports Johansson in the role: “What issue could there possibly be with casting her? The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.”  On Slate, Aisha Harris explains why a revelation late in the film is especially troubling in the movie’s portrayal of race.

Family discussion: Is Major a person, a machine, or a weapon? What enhancement would you like to have?

If you like this, try: the “Matrix” and “Bourne” series, “Lucy,”  and the Ghost in the Shell comics and anime

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