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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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
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
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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Smurfs: The Lost Village

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril/violence, no one injured
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 7, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 10, 2017

Copyright Sony 2017
Copyright Sony 2017
The Smurfs are back where they belong, in a fully-animated feature film that wisely gives up on the idea of trying to put them into the real live action world and even more wisely gives up on the brash and unfunny storylines that relied much too heavily on substituting “smurf” for various words. Better than that, “Smurfs: The Lost Village”creates a truly enchanted and enchanting world for the Smurfs, a candy-colored pastoral setting that is just right for the little blue creatures. And best of all, for the first time this is a Smurf story that engages with the ultimate existential dilemma of the Smurfs: why are all the male Smurfs given names that reflect their most salient attributes (Hefty, Clumsy, Brainy, Nosy, Painter, Table Eater, Therapist) while the lone female Smurf is only defined by her gender and called Smurfette? Does her lack of a more descriptive name mean that there is nothing special about her? And why aren’t there any other female Smurfs, anyway?

These questions will all be answered in a delightfully satisfying and beautifully designed film that will be enjoyed by long-time fans and newcomers. Those steeped in Smurfology know that Smurfette’s gender is not the most important difference that sets her apart from the other Smurfs in her village.

Smurfette (with the sweet, spunky voice of Demi Lovato) was not born a Smurf (if, indeed Smurfs are born). She was created out of clay by the Smurfs’ nemesis, the evil wizard Gargamel (delightfully voiced by Rainn Wilson), who wanted her to infiltrate the Smurfs so she could spy on them and create mistrust and jealousy. But she was turned into a real Smurf by the Smurf’s wise and benign leader, Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin). As this story begins, she is living happily in the Smurf community, though wistful at not having a (literally) defining characteristic. If her name does not tell her who she is, how will she and the boy Smurfs know?

As in most Smurf stories, the bad buy here is Gargamel, who as usual has an evil plan that involves capturing the Smurfs and extracting their magic to create a potion that will give him unlimited power. Smurfette discovers that there is another Smurf community, so she, Hefty (Joe Manganiello), Brainy (Danny Pudi), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) go on a journey to find it. The adventures along the way and the fun of getting acquainted with the Amazonian warriors of the lost village (including Julia Roberts as their leader) are whimsically imagined and a lot of fun, with bright, lively music and a sweet message of finding your own way and being a part of a community.

Parents should know that this film has some mild fantasy peril and violence, with no one badly injured. There is some mild language and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: If you were a Smurf, what would your name be? Which Smurf is your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: the Smurf cartoons and books and “Trolls”

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Ghost in the Shell

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: sci-fi/action style peril and violence, guns, explosions, fire, terrorism, suicide, murder, characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Questionable cross-race casting
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Copyright DreamWorks 2017
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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