Coco

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of death and loss, some peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2017

Copyright Disney-Pixar 2017
Those of us who remember the 1995 release of Pixar’s first feature film, “Toy Story,” feel that we’ve all grown up together. It isn’t just the astonishing progress in the technology (the reason the first film’s characters were toys was that all they could animate were shiny smooth surfaces). It is the progression of the themes of the films, the first one literally about a child’s playthings, through stories that deal with increasingly adult concerns about aging, loss, and meaning. “Coco” is the story of a Mexican 12-year-old named Miguel, but the title reminds us that the central character is his great-grandmother Coco, struggling with dementia but beloved by her family. It has the dazzling visuals, expert tone and pacing, and the smiling-through-tears moments we have come to rely on from Pixar.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is the youngest in a big, close family that lives together and works together in the family shoemaking business. He tells us the story of the family through beautifully animated papel picado, the lacy paper cutouts that are a Mexican tradition. His great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter, the then toddler Coco, to pursue a musical career and since then the family has banned any member from playing or even listening to music. But Miguel loves music and has a secret room where he watches old clips of the community’s biggest music and movie star, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and plays his homemade guitar, painted to look like de la Cruz’s.

Miguel hopes to play in a talent show but his grandmother, Coco’s daughter, finds out and smashes his guitar. When Miguel tries to borrow de la Cruz’s guitar from his crypt, he is somehow transported to the Land of the Dead, just as the residents are making their annual pilgrimage over the marigold-strewn bridge to visit the families who have invited them with photographs and memories. There he recognizes his ancestors from the family ofrenda (shrine with photos, candles, food, and mementos). Like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland, he has many adventures on a journey in an enchantingly imaginative world but wants to go home. If he does not return by sunrise, he will have to stay there forever.

The Land of the Dead is gorgeously imagined, filled with thousands of lights and the kind of fascinating details that are made for the pause button. The — I’m going to call them people, but they look like skeletons with eyeballs — live in a stratified world, where those who have extended families and are best and most lovingly remembered have beautiful clothes and homes while those who are alone and nearly forgotten live in a (still-picturesque) slum and call each other “cousin” and “uncle” to pretend that they are still connected to someone. Once they are no longer remembered, they just dissolve into dust. Miguel meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a loose-limbed, poorly dressed skeleton who is close to dissolving as he is being forgotten in the land of the living. Hector agrees to take Miguel to Ernesto de la Cruz, for help in going home, if Miguel will bring back Hector’s photo, so he can be remembered.

It is good to see Mexican culture portrayed in such a straightforward manner, not exotica-sized or othered. There are some exciting adventures and some very funny moments along the way, involving Miguel’s sidekick, a Xolo street dog named Dante, a wild talent show/concert, a still-pushing-the-edge-of-the-artistic-envelope Frida Kahlo, and a psychedelic-colored flying lion-headed creature, one of the alebrije who guide the dead to where they are supposed to be. The skeletons are brilliantly animated, each with a very individual personality and a lot of fun with bones that, without tissue, do not always hold together. Moments of warm humor keep the story from getting maudlin, and moments of true-heartedness make us feel as connected to the Land of the Dead as Miguel is.

Parents should know that much of the film takes place in the Land of the Dead (heaven) filled with skeletons, and it has themes of loss including memory loss, and murder and alcohol.

Family discussion: When is the right time to seize the moment? Ask your family for some stories of your ancestors. What stories do you want people to remember about you?

If you like this, try: “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out,” and “The Book of Life” — and learn about Frida Kahlo and about the real-life Day of the Dead celebrations

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Thor: Ragnarock

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book fantasy peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017

Copyright Disney 2017
New Zealand director Taika Waititi is exactly what Marvel/Disney needed, a true fanboy who loves superheroes because they are fun. Away with you, brooding and tortured comic book characters! What we want to see is a superhero who gets messed with, some colorful characters, a fascinatingly deranged villain, some thrilling action and slamming special effects, a surprise cameo, and, after a suitable series of setbacks, triumph. Plus some post-credit scenes. There’s all of that in this movie, plus some of the funniest moments on screen this year. It is irreverent, even cheeky. It has a sense of humor about itself while never, ever making fun of comic books or their fans.

Waititi, with a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, has taken one of the most serious of the Avengers, with only Chris Hemsworth’s imperishable charm keeping him just this side of wooden, and made use of his fellow antipodean’s true superpower, which is that he is a superb comic actor.

What does Thor have going for him? He has his dad, the king of the gods, Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), his home, Asgard, his strength, his hair, his divinity, his confidence, and his hammer. He loses most of that pretty quickly, and stripped down Thor suddenly becomes a much more relatable character, more deserving of our support because he actually seems to need it. You might even say down to earth, except that earth does not really come into it this time.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Thor begins. “Oh, no, Thor is in a cage.” He’s not talking to us, and finding out who he is telling his story to is the first hint we get that we are operating in a slightly cracked universe. But then, reassuringly, Thor does his Thor thing and gets himself out of a big mess with endless panache.

And then things go wrong. The Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) turns up to crush his hammer in her hands. She intends to take over Asgard and there does not seem to be anything he can do about it. He ends up on a planet that is essentially a junk pile, where he is discovered by scavengers. “Are you a fighter or are you food?” they ask him. Before they can gobble him up, he is captured by another scavenger (a terrific Tessa Thompson), who turns out to have a connection to Asgard. But she sells him to the Grandmaster (a glam Jeff Goldblum), who runs a lucrative gladiator show for galactic fans. Waiting to go to battle in the arena, Thor meets the movie’s most endearing character, a rock creature named Korg, played by Waititi himself. And then Thor sees his opponent in the battle to the death: his old Avenger buddy Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). We may love seeing the Avengers join together to take on the bad guys, but we love seeing them fight each other, too, and the Thor/Hulk fight is a smash. Literally.

Loki is there, too, I’m happy to say, and I only wish that someday he will have a movie of his own. Tom Hiddleston’s silky bad boy admits at one point that his loyalties shift moment to moment, and his mercurial impishness is perfectly calibrated. Despite her best efforts, Blanchett’s villain is not nearly as interesting as the other characters, and the resolution does not have the emotional weight that it does in the comics. But she barely diminishes the sheer fun of this film and I hope Marvel keeps Waititi on the roster for as many of these as he is willing to take on.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes!

Parents should know that this is a superhero movie with a lot of peril and action-style fantasy violence and some disturbing images, some alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What does Loki want? Which Avenger would you most like to be? What makes someone significant?

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

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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
Date Released to DVD: November 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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Transformers: The Last Knight

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
Profanity: Strong language, many s-words and crude insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy violence, fire, guns, explosions, chases, characters injured and killed, reference to suicide
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

It is time to stop the madness. I only wish this was called “Knight: The Last Transformers Movie.” I am as happy as anyone to see robots transforming into cars and cars transforming into robots and I freely admit to tearing up once when it appeared that Bumblebee might have been mortally wounded. I’m very fond of Sir Anthony Hopkins, and I’m also very fond of Mark Wahlberg. But this big, loud, dumb, dull, nonsensical dud of a movie is two and a half excruciating hours long.

Wahlberg returns as inventor-turned-renegade Autobots protector Cade Yeager. The government has set up a special branch of the military to get rid of all of the transformers, making no distinction between the honorable Autobots led by Optimus Prime and the evil Decepticons led by Megatron. We see in a prologue set in the time of King Arthur that the Transformers go back more than 1000 years, when Merlin, who turns out to have had no magical skills at all, was given the “weapon of ultimate power,” a staff that enabled Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to win some battle with the help of a pretty impressive three-headed dragon. The staff and an amulet that is somehow connected to it will be the McGuffins that everyone will be looking for despite the fact that we never really find out what they can do.

Sure, the stunts are fun, and I especially enjoyed seeing Wahlberg leap from drone to drone like he was a stone skipping on a pond. But without a clear idea of the stakes there is no heft to them; it’s just pixels.

And the dialog — I can’t say which is worse, the painful attempts at banter (there’s an intended-to-be cute but isn’t at all riff on the homonyms “chaste” and “chased”), the exposition-heavy portentousness (“Where in Hell is your so-called magician?” “He will be here, Lancelot.” “Why do we tell ourselves these stories? We want to believe we can be heroes in our own lives.” “Do you seek redemption?” “Only a direct descendant of Merlin can wield this instrument of immense power!”), or the faux meaningful (“You are more important than you can possibly imagine”). If someone has to be spouting off idiotic explanations, though, at least most of it is in the beautifully husky Welsh voice of Sir Anthony (though his character’s ripping a page out of an antique library book is the most disturbingly violent act in the film).

Not much makes sense in “Transformers: The Last Night.” I’m not talking about why a robot would smoke a robot cigar-type sense. We expect that going in. But why would a robot want to eat a car?
And I’m talking about the basic elements that are necessary to connect to what is going on. How do you kill a Decepticon? Sometimes robots blow apart and sometimes they just come back together like in “Terminator 2.” How do we know how we are supposed to feel if we don’t know what the impact/import of a hit is? That all-powerful weapon? We never understand what it can do and it doesn’t seem very powerful after all. What is the point of Tony Hale spouting off about physics? I will note that one completely deranged moment was actually quite fun, when a C-3PO rip-off (acknowledged as such!) turns out to be the source of the dramatic organ music in one scene: “I was making the moment more epic.” A bit more deliriously loopy stuff like that would have been a step in the right direction.

What is the point of all the jokes about how a professor at Oxford should be looking for a husband? (Or a wife?) What is the deal with way too many daddy issues? Everyone in this movie seems to be a daughter looking for a daddy or a daddy looking for a daughter. As for this daughter, I’m just looking for a good summer stunts and explosions movie. Still looking.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence with chases, explosions, swords, guns, and monsters. Human and robot characters are injured and killed. Characters use strong and crude language and there is some dumb sexual humor.

Family discussion: Does it matter that Cade is “chosen?” Which Transformer is your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: the other “Transformers” movies and the television series

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Cars 3

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence including fiery car crashes, references to sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017
Copyright Disney/Pixar 2017

It’s better than “Cars 2,” but not as good as the first “Cars,” so it continues the saga of the second tier of Pixar movies.  Second-tier Pixar is pretty good. But this time the storyline is unlikely to be of much interest to children.  They’ll enjoy the race scenes (except for the ones that are too scary) and the silly humor.  But the theme of this film is the existential dilemma of an aging athlete.  While “Inside Out” and “Toy Story 3” addressed issues of growing older/up with infinite tenderness and sensitivity, “Cars 3,” with the help of generous samples of Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson character from the first film, has appropriated the plots of many of the “Rocky” movies, with now-champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) confronted with his own mortality.  I know; they’re machines, but apparently they have parents and childhoods and lifespans.

Lightning is beaten by a super-slick competitor dashingly named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who looks like he is visiting from another Disney movie, “Tron.”  And there’s another blow.  Lightning has loved being sponsored by his friends at Rust-Eze, but the company has been sold and his new sponsor is the smooth, corporate Sinclair (Nathan Fillion), who tells him that if he does not win his next race, he has to stop racing all together.

But racing is all Lightning knows or cares about.  If he can’t race, who is he?

Sinclair has a very high-tech training facility that’s all about cybermetrics. Lighting is assigned a new trainer, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), who is essentially a stopwatch on wheels.  Everything is about readouts and algorithms.  Lightning takes her out on the beach to show her what real racing is.  And he decides that his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, I mean Doc Hudson, may be gone, but perhaps he can find Doc’s mentor, and gain some wisdom.

Lighting and Cruz end up competing in what they think is a race but what turns out to be a demolition derby (pretty scary for G).  They squabble and make up and Cruz confides that she once dreamed of racing.  They do find Doc’s old friends, led by Smokey (Chris Cooper) and his adorable sidekicks.

It has talking cars, and kids will like that. And it doesn’t have the bombast and over-complexity of “Cars 2.”  But it also does not have the heart we have come to rely on from Pixar, and if we feel disappointed, it is only because they have set the bar so high.

Parents should know that despite the G rating, this film has characters in peril including scary 3D car crashes and fire, many references to a sad death and to the challenges of aging, and a reference to unsupportive parents.

Family discussion: Why did Lou take other children’s toys? Who is your mentor and who can you help as Doc Hudson helped Lightning?

If you like this, try: the other “Cars” movies and “A Bug’s Life”

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