Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Posted on December 21, 2017 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language, b-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/fantasy-style peril and violence, characters injured, snakes, guns, fights, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2017

Copyright Columbia 2017
There has never been a more charming movie action hero than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose easy confidence is highlighted in a scene from the trailer for “Furious 7,” when his character gets out of a hospital bed, flexes his muscle to shatter the cast that covers his entire arm, and says meaningfully, “Daddy’s got to go to work.” The only thing more fun is seeing him subvert his own movie star magic, as he did with Kevin Hart in “Central Intelligence,” and as he does with Hart again in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” where he plays the video game avatar of a shy, highly allergic high school nerd named Spencer (Alex Wolff). On the outside, he is Dr. Smolder Bravestone, a cross between Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and, well, The Rock. On the inside, he is still Spencer. But this game goes way past virtual or augmented reality. Spencer and three other kids from his school are stuck in the game, and have to finish it before using up the three life bars each has been given.

Jumanji, the story of a jungle board game that becomes all too real, began as a 1981 book by author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, and then a 1995 movie with Robin Williams as a grown-up who has been trapped in the game since he was a boy. This movie pays tribute to the original in the opening scene, set in 1996, when the board game is found at the beach, buried in the sand. A boy in a Metallica t-shirt named Alex (Nick Jonas) has no interest. He likes video games. But somehow the beautifully carved board turns into a cartridge, he pops it in, and disappears.

And then we meet Spencer and three other students sent with him to detention: Fridge, a football star who has Spencer doing his homework, which gets them both in trouble; Bethany, a popular girl who only cares about her social media likes and takes a phone call in the middle of a quiz; and Martha, an anxious girl who puts herself under a lot of pressure to get good grades and mouths off to the gym teacher. Ordered to clean up the school basement as punishment, they find the game console and then disappear into the avatars they have selected: Dr. Bravestone, “weapons valet” Moose Finbar (Hart), scholar Dr. Shelly Oberon, and martial arts specialist Ruby Roundhouse (“Guardians of the Galaxy” series Nebula, Karen Gillan). They can’t get back home until they complete the game.

Director Jake Kasden balances the action, comedy, and heart and the four leads, especially Johnson and Black, have a lot of fun with the disconnect between what they look like and who they are inside. Bravestone quavers to an adversary, “I should warn you, I think I am a very strong puncher” before landing a roundhouse. And Bethany/Oberon can barely decide which is more upsetting, being in the body of an overweight middle-aged man (she needs some guidance on going to the bathroom) or not having her phone. There’s a nice twist when Bethany-as-Oberon tries to reach Martha-as-Ruby how to flirt so she can distract the bad guys, and Martha/Ruby learns that she has what she needs. Despite the best efforts of the jewel-thief villain (Bobby Cannavale) the strengths of the avatars and some unexplored strengths of the teenagers themselves help them get through the levels to finish the game. The original film was a success because of its concept, innovative special effects, and the always dazzling Williams, but this one has a smarter plot, better characters, more heart, and by the time we get to Game Over, we just might be ready to reboot and start it over again.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended fantasy/comic peril and violence with characters injured and (temporarily) killed and some disturbing images and jump-out-at-you surprises, some crude humor about body parts and functions, some teen (adult avatar) drinking and drunkenness, kisses, and some schoolyard language (b-word). One girl (in a male body) teaches another girl how to flirt to distract the bad guys, but it is shown to be useless and she ends up using martial arts skills instead.

Family discussion: Which avatar would you pick? What strengths and weaknesses would you list for yourself? How did each of the characters use their game-assigned and real-life talents?

If you like this, try: the book and earlier movie and “Help! I Shrunk the Kids!”

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted on December 12, 2017 at 7:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2017
Copyright 2017 Disney

Within the first 15 minutes, I cried and laughed, and then did so again a few times, with some gasps in between. Writer/director Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”) has brought his considerable skill and obvious deep affection for the “Star Wars” universe to this latest chapter. I won’t make the obvious Force reference; I’ll just say that he has produced a film that longtime fans will find very satisfying, with a stunning black, white, and red color pallette, thrilling adventure, appealing new characters and worthy developments for old friends, including characters from the first movie (fourth chapter), and a cause to root for.

After the now-traditional opening crawl (basically: the rebellion is not doing very well against the First Order), we have the traditional beginning, right in the middle of the action. As with “The Force Awakens,” we see the I-even-rebel-against-rebels Poe Dameron (dashing Oscar Isaac) in his tiny X-Wing, taking on First Order General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) with not much by way of firepower, but enormous skill and endless amounts pure pleasure in messing with him. Hux spouts off pompous, pretentious threats about how many different ways he is going to destroy the rebellion, and Poe just trolls him while the rebels gear up for their traditional-but-never-old trick of being quick and cunning instead of enormous and cumbersome.

And we’re off — in three different directions, as Johnson weaves back and forth, with gorgeously cinematic segues recalling “Lawrence of Arabia’s” match flame to the desert. Finn (John Boyega) and a new character, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) go off in search of a code-breaker who, according to Maz (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) is the only one who can help them get on board the place they have to go to turn off the tracking device (callback to Episode 4, where if the old man didn’t get the tractor beam out of commission it was going to be a real short trip).

Meanwhile, as we saw in the last shot of the previous chapter, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (a majestic Mark Hamill, evoking both the farm boy turned Jedi he was in episodes IV-VI and his mentors Obi-wan Kenobi and Yoda as well). Like Leia (Carrie Fisher) in the first film, she tells him she needs his help (R2-D2 tells him, too). But he does not want to be involved any more, as fighter or teacher. And she is being contacted by a sort of Force version of Skype, by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In the last film, they fought with lightsabers in the snow. In this chapter, their conflict is more subtle, more personal.

And the rebel forces led by General Leia are being pushed back, with many casualties. This is a movie where more than one character makes the ultimate sacrifice. And more than one gets a last-minute rescue.

The settings are captivating, including a pleasure planet with an elaborate casino for the galaxy’s one percenters and some important lessons about both sides-ism and Balzac’s notion that behind every great fortune is a crime. And there is a salt-based planet with animals that look like foxes made from shards of glass. Chewie makes a heart-meltingly cute new friend. Refreshingly, female and non-white characters play dominant roles on both sides. And, there is a possibility of another New Hope. The rebel forces — and the Star Wars stories — are in good hands.

Parents should know that this is a sci-fi action film with extended peril and violence and some disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed, there is some mild language, some alcohol, and a kiss.

Family discussion: Why did Ben go to the dark side? What did Finn learn from the casino planet? Why did Luke change his mind?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films and Johnson’s “Brick” and “Looper”

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Thor: Ragnarock

Posted on November 2, 2017 at 10:14 pm

A-
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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The Foreigner

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 5:21 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, graphic, intense violence including terrorist bombings, guns, fighting, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 8, 2018
Copyright 2017 Sparkle Role Media

“The Foreigner” is in a genre I refer to as “Who is that chef?” movies. An actor with martial arts skills plays a role that has everyone else in the film saying, “Wait, how come that seemingly ordinary and unprepossessing guy has such mad special ops abilities?” It’s a bit like superhero movies, where mild-mannered Clark Kent turns out to have superpowers. And it gives all of us in the audience a chance to dream that someday those around us just might have that same highly vindicating realization that we are far cooler and more powerful than they think.

This film stars Jackie Chan, who also produced, so he was able to craft it around his persona and his priorities. This is not one of his light-hearted fun action films like the wildly popular “Rush Hour” movies and the early Chinese films like “Wheels on Meals,” where his poker face and split-second athleticism showed the inspiration of his idol, Buster Keaton. This is a “serious” (meaning pretentious) saga, based on the thriller by Stephen Leather about the owner of a Chinese restaurant in London who is devastated by the murder of his daughter in a terrorist attack and — say it with me — turns out to have special ops training that makes him the wrong guy to pick on.

As the movie opens, Chan’s character, Quan, picks up his teenage daughter at school and lets us know how protective he is just in time for her to get blown up. He visits the man he thinks knows who is responsible, an Irish politician and former IRA member named Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, working with the man who cast him in “Goldeneye”). The plot here relates to The Troubles and some renegades who want to start them up again, so get ready for lots of whiskey in cut glass highball glasses. He patiently and politely refuses to leave until he can see Hennessy, so, once he’s been patted down (“He’s just carrying his groceries,” the security guys assure their boss), he is ushered into Hennessy’s office and given the brush off. It turns out the groceries are the ingredients for a bomb, which Quan installs safely in a place that is conveniently empty. “One old man running circles around us,” says Hennessy. “I won’t underestimate him again.” Oh, yes he will.

There’s not enough substance here to make its overall dreariness worth it. And too much “how to” to watch without feeling very uncomfortable that the ones we are underestimating in real life are the bad guys.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely violent peril and action with many characters injured and killed, terrorist bombings, torture, murder, assault weapons, traps, fights, graphic and disturbing images, sad deaths, sexual references and situations including using sex to get information or access, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Should the police torture witnesses to prevent terrorist attacks? How were Quan’s actions different from the people he was fighting?

If you like this, try: The “John Wick” films

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The Mountain Between Us

Posted on October 5, 2017 at 5:48 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril, plane crash, animal attack, characters injured and killed, disturbing scenes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 6, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 26, 2017
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

A surgeon named Ben (Idris Elba) and a photojournalist named Alex (Kate Winslet) have to find their way home after a charter plane crashes in the Colorado Rockies. Both of them were stuck at the airport after their flight to Denver was cancelled and both had an urgent need to get to their destinations as quickly as possible. He was scheduled to perform a critical brain operation on a child. She was on her way to her wedding after completing an assignment taking pictures of gang members. So Alex introduces herself to Ben and finds a pilot (Beau Bridges) who agrees to take them. When he tells them he didn’t have to file a flight plan because they were only going to be in the air during daylight, they might have shown some concern. But they were in a hurry. In fact, they were in so much of a hurry that neither one of them told anyone what they were doing either.

So when the pilot has a stroke and the plane crashes at the top of a mountain, no one knows where they are. They have almost no equipment and even less food. They do have the pilot’s dog. Kate is wounded, but Ben handily applies first aid, including a custom made splint fashioned from airplane shrapnel. As she is sleeping, he buries the pilot and assesses their situation.

The location footage is gorgeous and beautifully filmed. But the script, based on the book by Charles Martin, is so soapy you could wash a week’s laundry in it, with much more focus on the artificial differences (despite her injury, she wants to take action while he thinks it is safest to stay where they are) and under-imagined peril. What we want to see is the brave and clever ways they solve the problem of survival. What we get is bickering, hurt feelings, a non-surprising revelation, and a romantic encounter, with a coda that turns the whole adventure into a meet cute. Elba and Winslet don’t have much chemistry, in part because her character is immature and reckless, not nearly as charming as the movie thinks she is. Their conversations are not especially revealing or illuminating for them or for us. What should be an inspiring story becomes a weary slog.

Parents should know that this film includes constant peril, with a scary plane crash in the mountains, animals, ice, deprivation, a bear trap, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, sexual references and situation, brief strong language

Family discussion: How did Ben and Alex rely on their professional skills in evaluating their options? What were their biggest differences?

If you like this, try: “Touching the Void,” “127 Hours,” and “K2”

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