Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action violence, guns, chases, characters injured and killed including genocide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 21, 2017

Copyright 2017 STX Films
Yes, the visuals and special effects in Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets” are next-level, dazzling, stunning, and themselves worth the price of a ticket (3D please). But let’s be honest. The best special effect in the movie is the lovely real face of Rihanna as Bubble, a shape-shifting alien our hero meets in an inter-galactic strip club.

That hero would be Valerian (Dane DeHaan), who has gone to the strip club in search of the disguise he needs to infiltrate an alien compound and rescue the woman he loves, his space partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne). She was captured as the two of them were on a mission to…oh, who cares what the mission was? It’s your basic save the universe stuff. You know and I know and they know you are not there for the subtleties of the space city that incorporates, “Zootopia”-style, every possible creature and culture, a veritable Pepperland of comity and the exchange of learning. In the opening scenes, we see the history of the place, as human astronauts welcome aboard an increasing variety of visitors with a warm handshake, first from other countries, and then from other planets and galaxies, still with something as close to a handshake as possible.

This is the movie Luc Besson has wanted to make since he was a teenager, base on a French comic book series from the 1960’s with a visionary aesthetic that inspired Besson’s own “5th Element” and George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” He had to wait decades until the technology made it possible to do the ravishing visuals justice. That is the good news and the bad news. The good news is that the visuals are indeed ravishing, worth a couple of viewings on the biggest screen you can find and then a couple more when you can watch it at home and hit “pause” to see every detail. The bad news is that the storyline has not held up as well over the years as the settings, in part because much of it has also been appropriated, too, over the years, partly because times have changed, and partly because it wasn’t that great to begin with. Valerian and Laureline banter back and forth about whether he can make a commitment to her as they try to save the world. It is supposed to be part of the fun of the story that they are cool and casual. Valerian even wears a Hawaiian shirt at one point instead of his spiffy spacesuit (they are undercover as tourists). But their characters are so bland, especially by contrast with the wildly imaginative world they are racing through, that it drags on the storyline. That’s disappointing because it distracts from some promising flickers of substance.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive sci-fi peril, action, and violence with many guns and blasters, characters injured and killed, sad deaths, references to genocide, corruption, brief strong language, provocative dance and references to prostitution.

Family discussion: Why do Valerian and Laureline disagree about the converter? How do you know when to break the rules?

If you like this, try: “Avatar” and “The Fifth Element”

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Comic-Con 2017: Day Two

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My second day at San Diego Comic-Con 2017: I saw the actors from the new Amazon Prime series “The Tick” in a press room, and then interviewed Joseph LoDuca, composer for all of the “Evil Dead” movies about how to create scary sounds, Kris Bowers about composing for the “Dear White People” series, Rachel Keller about acting on “Legion,” and Blake Neely about writing music for “The Flash,” “Arrow,” “Supergirl,” “Riverdale,” (including the musical episode of “Flash”). I saw Donald Faison moderate a panel about “Buddy Thunderstruck,” the stop-motion animation series about the adventures of a dog driver and his ferret mechanic, a panel of storyboard and pre-viz artists from movies like “The Matrix,” “Game of Thrones,” the Marvel movies, and the Jackie Robinson movie, “42.” The topics ranges from the most practical (“Can he raise his arms in that uniform?”) to the most conceptual (the reality levels for fantasy vs. the real world).

Of course I also so some great costumes, and I will be posting photos later. To the guy I thought at first was a cop, until I saw the smushed silver disks on your chest and realized you were Terminator 2: well played, sir. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to take your picture.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some teen language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action/fantasy peril and violence, chases, explosions, guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2017

This latest version of Spider-Man is a homecoming indeed, taking us back to the teenage Peter Parker, a bright kid going to high school in Queens, trying to figure out how to talk to the prettiest girl on the Academic Decathlon as he is also trying to figure out what it means to have the great responsibility that comes with great power. Holland, less soulful and more excitable than his recent predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. In this version (thankfully omitting the radioactive spider bite origin story), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is just 15 years old, a high school sophomore, and that means that everything that is happening to him is equally momentous, whether it’s a school field trip to Washington DC for the Decathlon or another kind of field trip that involves an all-out battle with members of the Avengers fighting each other.

We got a glimpse of Holland as Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei as a very young and appealing Aunt May at the end of the last Avengers movie, “Captain America: Civil War,” when Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) brings him to the big fight. This movie reminds us that is where we left off by letting us revisit that episode through Peter’s eyes. Of course if Tony Stark comes to get you and you end up stealing Captain America’s shield in a huge intramural Avengers battle, and you’re just 15 years old, you’re going to be super-excited and you’re going to record it all on your smartphone.

And once the battle is over, he’s going to be back to his regular life of school during the day and very polite crime-fighting at night, explaining his absences to Aunt May and his friends by saying he has a special internship with Stark Industries. Peter is eager to get back into the big leagues: “I feel like I could be doing more.” But Stark and his aide, Happy (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) tell him to stay home and work on his skills. “Just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Stark says, and Happy warns, “I’m responsible for seeing that you’re responsible.” But he does give Peter a very cool Spark-designed super-suit with many upgrades, and seeing Spidey discover and master them is a big part of the fun.

Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, bringing some of his comic-book vibe from “Batman” and “Birdman.” His character is Adrian Toomes, who is initially given the salvage contract to dispose of the mess left after a super-battle. When his group is replaced, putting the survival of his company in peril, he liberates some of the alien weapons left behind and becomes an arms dealer, ruthless in business but devoted to his family.

The film goes back and forth between superhero action and a John Hughes style teen movie, with with affectionate references to “Ferris Bueller,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “The Breakfast Club.” There is a nerdy best friend (Jacob Batalon as Ned), a way-out-of-his-league girl (Laura Harrier as Liz), a girl with some potential (Zendaya, wryly hilarious), a school field trip for the Academic Decathlon (with a rescue at the Washington Monument), a Spanish quiz, and a prom, all interrupted by some wild stunts, including a split-down-the-middle Staten Island ferry and a world-depends-on-it hijacking of some of the Avengers’ most important objects.

It’s funny (keep an eye out for Captain America’s school videos), it is exciting (the action scenes are very well paced), and it is smart, not overlooking the chance to compare Toomes’ weapon sales to unsavory characters to Stark’s. Holland is an immensely appealing Peter, young but already very much a hero. His super-challenges keep interfering with his teenage rites of passage, but my spidey-sense tells me he’s just right for the job.

NOTE: Stay ALL the way to the end for a second and very funny credits scene featuring one of the Avengers.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic-book/fantasy action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, chases, explosions, murder, and some teen language and sexual humor.

Family discussion: How does this differ from other Spider-Man movies? Why does Peter say no to Tony?

If you like this, try: more Marvel movies and some John Hughes movies, too

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Wonder Woman

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, some disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 3, 2017

They finally got a DC Comics superhero movie right. While Marvel/Disney has managed to turn out a series of top-quality films that managed to achieve a range of vividly individual tones for the different characters and yet keep everyone in the same infinity stone universe, DC/Warners has stumbled, most recently with the ponderous and murky “Batman vs. Superman.” A comic book movie can have serious themes, but it has to be fun. DC managed that for television, but not for the big screen – until “Wonder Woman,” which hits the superhero sweet spot between new and familiar, funny and exciting, romantic and heroic.

Credit goes to director Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) and screenwriter Allan Heinberg for making a smart, entertaining film about the character created by the fascinating William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-trained lawyer/psychiatrist, feminist, and inventor of the lie detector.

There’s a bit of a slow start with an unnecessary origin story. Young Diana the only child on the island of Themyscira, populated by women warriors. She wants to study combat with her aunt, the fierce General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wants to keep her safe.

It is Diana’s destiny to fight, however. When handsome and dashing WWI pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is shot down near the island, Diana rescues him. Wrapped in the Wonder Woman version of the lie detector, the golden lasso, he explains that he is an American spy, working undercover, and that he has discovered a terrible weapon that the Germans will use to wipe out thousands, even millions of people, poison gas. Diana (Gal Gadot), convinced that only the Greek god of war, Ares, could be responsible for such chaos and catastrophe, and that if she leaves the island, she can find him, kill him, and restore to humanity the peace they were created for.

We are used to origin stories where an ordinary person has superpowers unexpectedly thrust upon him (almost always him), whether he is bitten by a radioactive spider, arrives from a planet with a red sun, or gets hit with gamma rays. It is always fun to see them learn what they can do. We get a bit of that here with an obligatory training montage showing Diana riding horses and developing her hand-to-hand combat skills. We get the obligatory “you have greater powers than you know.”

But what is refreshing in this film is that what comes as a surprise to her is not what she can do but what the rest of the world has to offer. Trevor is the first male human she has ever seen — and she sees all of him when he gets out of the bathing pool, though it is his watch, and not his body, that she finds surprising. When she leaves the island, everything is new to her — WWI-era London, a baby, the idea of marriage, clothing that may be fashionable but impedes movement.

Gadot, a veteran of the Israeli army has a warmth on screen that shines through her increasing engagement with the human world and her ferocious determination in battle. She and Pine have an engaging spark with some old movie-style repartee and sizzling glances. The movie, shot on film, not digital, has a lovely old-school glow as well. The action scenes are exciting and vibrant with character, not just about the stunts.

We have seen a lot of WWII on screen but not much of the Great War. WWI introduced one of the most terrible weapons in human history, a weapon so devastating and uncontrollable that it has been banned ever since. “Wonder Woman” wisely grounds this story in that moment, with poison gas being developed by the Germans, led by chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya, unfortunately perpetuating the comic book cliché of disfigured villains) and an officer named Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who has a juicily evil moment involving a gas mask.

If the “Justice League” trailer at the beginning does not give you a hint that somehow Diana will still be around in the 21st century, bookend scenes set in the present day (involving a delivery from Wayne Industries) alert you that her WWI experience is just the beginning. I have some problems with a turning point for Diana in he final confrontation that is disappointingly retro. Aside from these concerns, this film is cheeringly robust, vibrant, and exciting, worthy of the Amazon warrior and the early feminist who created her.

Parents should know that this film includes extended wartime and comic book violence, characters injured and killed including civilians and children, some disturbing and graphic images, some sexual references and mild sexual situation, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Diana’s mother tell her the truth? Why did Sir Patrick send Steve and Diana on the mission?

If you like this, try: the Wonder Woman comics and the book about the creator of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action/comic-book peril and violence with guns and explosions, characters killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: August 22, 2017

Copyright 2017 Marvel Studios
Copyright 2017 Marvel Studios
Remember about a week ago when I said that the baby panda in “Born in China” was the most adorable creature on earth? That may still be, but Baby Groot is probably the most adorable baby in the universe. “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2” opens up with a bang — a wild action scene as our heroes and anti-heroes fight a huge monster that is out of focus and at the side of the screen as we watch Baby Groot happily dancing to ELO’s lilting “Mr. Blue Sky.”

“A little good, a little bad, bit of both,” Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) promised his fellow Guardians and us at the end of the first film. And that’s what we get in this sequel, still delightfully off-kilter, still deliciously irreverent, and still delectably scored with 70’s pop songs. “Can you hold the banter until after the space battle?” one character asks. Probably not, and we would not want it any other way.

Despite the indicators the in post-credits scene from the first film, it is a relief to report that this movie is not about Thanos or another infinity stone. It is a more personal story, giving the characters a chance to know each other and us to know them, too.

Peter was born in Missouri to a single mother who died of cancer when he was ten, then captured by the blue-faced space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker), who was hired to deliver him to his father but instead kept him as a sort of mascot/apprentice. In Vol 2 Peter meets his father, a “celestial” named Ego (really) with his own planet. And Zamora (Zoe Saldana) meets up with her estranged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). I don’t mean “estranged” like having trouble agreeing on what to get Mom for Mother’s Day; I mean estranged like trying to kill one another.

Ego is accompanied by a new character named Mantis (Pom Klementieff) a shy and inexperienced empath who can read and sooth the emotions of others. As Peter gets to know his father, and even achieve his boyhood dream of tossing a ball back and forth with him, in typically off-kilter Guardians of the Galaxy way, the group is being chased down by a race of beautiful gold people who claim to be genetically perfect, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), via drone-style attack ships. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) could not resist stealing some of their precious batteries, the very ones Ayesha had hired them to protect. They are also being sought after by Yondu, who was expelled from the tribe of space thieves led by Sylvester Stallone (really, and it kind of makes sense because he does look and sound like an alien) for keeping Peter; kids are supposed to be off limits.

The banter is fine; with very funny references to “Cheers” and to David Hasselhoff and “Knight Rider.” The visuals are imaginative and striking and the battle scenes well staged. I got lost in the last one, but maybe we are supposed to. Writer/director James Gunn has an outstanding sense of pacing and tone. And I like the X-Men-style shifts of alliance. It is especially appropriate for characters who are “a little good, a little bad” to be surrounded by characters who are, too. While the father-son dynamic story does not always work, Baby Groot more than makes up for it, not just in adorable quotient but in what we learn in seeing the other characters interact with him.

“All any of you do is yell at each other,” Nebula correctly points out. “You are not friends.” “No, we are family,” Drax (Dave Bautista) replies. And we’re starting to feel like they’re our family, too.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end for several extra scenes. You won’t want to miss the one with Groot.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/comic book/action violence and peril with some disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some strong language, sexual references and and potty humor.

Family discussion: How did meeting his father change Peter’s view of family? Which switch of allegiance was most surprising?

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Avengers”

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