Pacific Rim Uprising

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:06 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with disturbing images, giant robots, alien monsters, explosions, mass destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
I know you’re all eager to hear whether you will understand this movie if you haven’t seen (or, more likely, saw and forgot) the first one. Here is my answer: you won’t understand this film even if you did see and remember the first one and it just doesn’t matter. The first one was about giant robots fighting alien monsters and it ended with Idris Elba giving a great pep talk to the troops and then sacrificing himself to save the world.

Second verse, same as the first. Even bigger robots.  Even meaner monster aliens.  Even dumber dialogue.  Buildings knocked down and shattered as though they were made of eggshells.  A volcano. Plus mutant robot monster aliens.  A near-feral girl with a gift for creating robots.  A pilot with daddy issues.

And, I can’t help it, since it takes two pilots who mind-meld in a process called “drift” to operate the giant robots called Jaegers in perfect synchronization, every time they do it I keep thinking they’re playing Dance Dance Revolution.

That would be only slightly more silly than the actual storyline (hmm, a “Step Up”/”Pacific Rim” crossover — I offer this idea freely, noting that there is a promise of a third chapter at the end of the film).

“Star Wars'” John Boyega (who also co-produced) plays Jake, the son of the Idris Elba character. As he explains in a striking opening scene, the world has in some ways returned to normal after the defeat of the Kaiju monsters, though their enormous skeletons are still a reminder of the fight, one right next to the pool where Jake is enjoying a life of girls and parties. He has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps as a pilot or a hero. Like his “Star Wars” pal Rey, he is a scavenger, looking Jaeger robot junkyards. But things go wrong when a helmeted motorcycle rider steals the special part he promised to some very unforgiving guys. I note here the famous Roger Ebert rule that a mysterious helmeted figure will always turn out to be female. Yes, Amara (Cailee Spaeny) is not only female but young, and a Shuri-like tech whiz who is building her own Jaeger. The two of them end up in jail, and then, of course, sent to pilot training. “Ender’s Game”-style, younger recruits are taken because they are better at drifting.

When they arrive, Amara excitedly recognizes all the various Jaegers as a way of reintroducing us to them, and, discovering who Jake is, reminds us again that his father was a hero and he is not too happy about that. The tough, this-is-serious-business commanding officer is Nate (Scott Eastwood, channeling his dad), who says things like, “You and I both know you could have been great.”

There’s also a lot of “We need it now.” “It can’t be done.” “Do it anyway” “I need more time!” “We don’t have any!” “You got this!” “Let’s do this!” “Will it work?” “One way to find out!” talk and a lot of “20 kilometers to impact” military/tech language. And Jake says he can’t give a pep talk like his dad but he does. Does it include “This is OUR time!” Yes, it does.

The good thing is that the movie does not just know how silly it is — it embraces the silliness. The better thing is that it has EVEN BIGGER ROBOTS fighting EVEN BIGGER MUTANT ROBOT ALIENS! No matter how dumb it gets, no matter that the robots and monsters have more personality than the humans, no matter how much it seems like a mash-up of “Transformers,” “Ender’s Game,” “Starship Troopers,” and anime, it is undeniably fun to see robots bashing monsters, and thankfully there isn’t much in between the battles to slow things down.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, scary monsters, some disturbing images, sad death of parents, issues of sacrifice, brief strong language, brief crude humor

Family discussion: Why did Jake insist that he was not like his father? How do you think the drift works? How do you prevent being defined by other people?

If you like this, try: The first “Pacific Rim,” “Ender’s Game,” and “Starship Troopers”

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Black Panther

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 6:38 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book-style peril and violence, guns, fistfights, chases, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda forever! And all hail writer/director Ryan Coogler, the Black Panther, the Dora Milaje, and everyone who helped to bring this next-level, majestic, and wildly entertaining superhero movie to life.

Quick primer for those unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe: Black Panther, the first major black comic book superhero, lives in a self-sufficient, almost completely hidden African country called Wakanda. An American CIA field agent describes it as a poor, undeveloped country: “textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” That is how they want to be seen by the world. In reality, thanks to a meteor that landed there in prehistoric times, they are the world’s only source of a metal called vibranium, which is extremely powerful, and which has been the basis for the world’s most advanced technology. Because Wakanda is cut off from the rest of the continent by mountains and rainforests, they have never been colonized and had very little interaction with the rest of the world. When they did, it did not go well. King T’Chaka spoke to the UN in “Captain America: Civil War,” and was assassinated. After a brief scene set in the past, we begin the story when his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take over as king.

Much of the film takes place in Wakanda, gloriously imagined by production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, reflecting extensive research into African design. It is worth seeing the film a second time just to revel in the wonderfully vibrant shapes and colors, and in the African landscape.

Copyright Marvel Studios 2018

Wakanda’s all-female military is called the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira). She advises T’Challa about a mission outside of Wakanda, where he is going to rescue his one-time girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a spy who has gone undercover and has been captured by warlords. “Don’t freeze,” Okoye tells T’Challa. “I never freeze,” he replies. But he does. That’s the effect Nakia has on him. At first, she is angry that he interrupted her mission. But then he tells her that he wants her there when he becomes king, and she is glad to agree.

When they return, we see him honor his mother (Angela Bassett, regal and steadfast) and get teased by his sister, the tech whiz Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is this movie’s version of James Bond’s Q, except that she does not just provide the cool gadgets; she invents them. Her motto seems to be what she tells her brother: “Just because something works does not mean it can’t be improved.” That comment, made as a gentle taunt to a brother who is not as comfortable with change as she is, is just one example of the way that this film is able to raise profound issues in a way that resonates but is never heavy-handed or distracting. And the way T’Challa responds to being teased like the admonition not to freeze, helps to humanize the brilliant, brave, handsome, wealthy, powerful superhero.

T’Challa wants to continue to keep Wakanda away from the troubles of the rest of the world. Nakia tells him that they are obligated to share what they have to help protect others. She says, “I can’t be happy here knowing there are people out there who have nothing.” Of course, they are both right, and this conflict is reflected throughout the film in a way that is remarkably nuanced and thoughtful, not just for a superhero movie but in any context.

As I have often said, superhero movies depend more on the villain than the hero, and this one has one of the all-time greats. Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s two previous films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is nothing less than mesmerizing here, playing a man who represents the “other” to T’Challa, but who is connected to him as well. The film touches lightly but with insight on the difference between being an African, raised in a country where everyone is black and unqualifiedly patriotic, if insular, and being an African-American, deeply conflicted about the relationship with “home,” but better able to understand the plight of others. It touches on other vital contemporary issues like refugees and radicalization and it is all completely organic to the story.

And it is a full-on superhero movie, with a wild chase through an Asian city some very cool stunts, and a huge climactic fight scene involving a massive battle and at least two different modes of transportation, not including the battle rhinos. Yes, I said battle rhinos. I know, right?

The supporting cast includes an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), a rare on-screen appearance by motion-capture master Andy Serkis with his Tolkien co-star Martin Freeman as a CIA agent, Forest Whitaker as a priest, Winston Duke as the leader of on of Wakanda’s five tribes, and “This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown as a guy you’re better off not knowing too much about until you see the movie, which I hope you do, more than once. You’ll want to be a part of Wakanda, too.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive comic book-style action violence with many characters injured and killed, guns, spears, hand-to-hand combat, chases, explosions, and some strong language.

Family discussion: If T’Challa and Erik had grown up in each other’s environments, how would they be different? How should Wakanda resolve the conflict between tradition and innovation? Is it true that it is hard for a good man to be a good king? Why?

If you like this, try: the Black Panther comics and the Avengers movies

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Fifty Shades Freed

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 6:36 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including kidnapping, punching, knife, gun, chase
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018

Copyright 2017 Universal
“The worse sin passion can commit is to be joyless,” wrote Dorothy Sayers. And this movie is Exhibit A. It’s more of an endless perfume commercial than a story, with beautiful people smooching (and more) in a series of increasingly luxurious settings and modes of transportation. Viewers may more likely to find their breath taken away by the Birkin bag Ana carries than the licking-ice-cream-off-Christian’s-chest scene, the “You own this?” about the fancy private airplane response, “We own this” more than “meet me in the Red Room of pain.”

These are people who are supposed to be exceptionally successful at their jobs who are somehow not especially committed to them or particularly good at them. Anna is a college drop-out now elevated to editor at the publishing company that happens to be owned by her new husband, but entirely on her merits, but the job itself is one of those cutesy Hallmark Christmas movie-type careers where all she has to do is congratulate her hunky author on his success and ask him gently about the next book and tell an assistant to increase the font size on a cover. More important, these are people who share a deep kink connection who are pretty, to use their term, vanilla. Anything at all interesting about the issue of the power dynamics between Ana and Christian is so soft-focus that it barely registers.

It seems Ms. James ran out of ideas about a book and a half ago. All they’ve got left is sex in this and that ultra-luxurious location (more shelter porn than porn porn here) interspersed with some very random thriller moments as a figure from the past wants to destroy the perfect prettiness of the romance. This gives us an opportunity for a chase scene on a mountain road that turns out to be, like so much in the film, foreplay, plus some not at all tense would-be thriller moments and one pretty funny joke.* The tedium is occasionally lessened by some pop song montages. The music is not that great, but it is better than the dialogue. And then, the final whack of the cinematic riding crop, the utterly unnecessary remix montage featuring highlights of the films that we were hoping to have forgotten.

*New variation of the Gothika rule: I will give away the joke to anyone who sends me an email at to save you the time and money of seeing the film.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive and explicit sexual references and situations with some BDSM activity, nudity, some strong language, alcohol, and peril and violence including kidnapping, a gun, knives, and punching.

Family discussion: Why did Ana object to Christian’s behavior in the red room on one occasion? What made each of them jealous?

If you like this, try: “9 1/2 Weeks”

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Peter Rabbit

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 11:11 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor and action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, explosions, electrocutions, references to sad parental deaths and killing animals, human character collapses and dies
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018

Copyright 2017 Sony
We’re only six weeks in, and we’ve already had two live action/animation adaptations of beloved British classics of children’s literature, both starring members of the Gleeson family. One will go down in history as an example of how to do it right and the other, if it must remembered at all, will be the example of how to do it wrong. For the record, Paddington 2, starring Brendan Gleeson, captured the gentle charm of the stories because it trusted its source material and it trusted its audience. But “Peter Rabbit,” based on the books and paintings by Beatrix Potter, tries to make the classic story of a bunny who ignores his mother’s warning and almost gets caught by the farmer when he steals into the garden into a hyped-up, wink-at-the-crowd mess of slapstick, meta-narrative, and story of love and redemption. By trying to be contemporary, it loses the very qualities that have made it beloved in generations of nurseries.

As in the original book, before the story begins Peter’s father was captured by Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) and eaten in a pie. Unlike the book, Peter’s mother is gone, too, and he is responsible for his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail and his cousin, Benjamin Bunny. Peter (voice of James Corden) is reckless and over-confident, leading Benjamin into the garden, which McGregor has covered with scary-looking steel traps. “There are other ways to get a meal,” he’s warned. “But not as fun!” Peter says, happy to risk not just his own life, but the others’ as well.

Peter deftly avoids the traps, but almost ends up in a pie himself, escaping by slipping out of his denim jacket, which McGregor uses on a (tiny) scarecrow. Aiding his rescue is McGregor’s neighbor, Bea (as in Beatrix Potter), a sweet-spirited artist who lives next door and is a friend to all of the local animals.

When Peter goes back to retrieve his jacket, McGregor catches him. It is almost too late for him to save himself when suddenly McGregor, like Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” has a sudden heart attack in the garden, collapses and dies. Though Peter takes credit for vanquishing his foe, the narrator (Margot Robbie) assures us that his death is attributable to “78 years of bad lifestyle choices,” with a merry little montage of McGregor inhaling asbestos and eating high-fat food. Really?

This, of course, is not in the book, is completely unnecessary to the storyline, and is likely to raise concerns in some of the young viewers, especially after Peter brags that he made it happen.

The property is inherited by another Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a persnickety control-freak of a great-nephew who barely knew he had a great-uncle with a farm and never met him. Thomas McGregor works for the famous Harrods department store, where he has a complete meltdown after being denied a promotion due to nepotism. If all of this seems superficial and unnecessary, that is because it is.

His arrival at the farm brings mayhem as he battles Peter and the rest of the local critters for the vegetable garden and the house, trying not to let his pretty neighbor know that he is not as much of an animal-lover as she is.

The movie opens with soaring birds singing an uplifting ballad — and then getting smushed, which becomes a repeated gag. So from the beginning, this film undercuts itself, winking at the audience and then trying to take it back. A joke about today’s parents’ oversensitivity to allergies is followed by “just kidding; don’t write letters!” “Don’t explain the joke,” Benjamin Bunny says. But that’s just what the movie does, constantly unsure of its focus and tone. Some sweet moments and lovely animation cannot make up for a film that is, to use a food metaphor, overstuffed and yet undernourished.

Parents should know that this movie includes some comic peril and violence, but a human character collapses and dies and there are references to the sad loss of Peter Rabbit’s parents, including his father’s being made into a pie, brief potty humor, some body shaming, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What did the characters learn about apologizing? Should farmers let animals eat their crops? What is your character flaw?

If you like this, try: “Babe,” “Paddington” and “Paddington 2,” and “Miss Potter,” with as Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Ewan McGregor as her publisher

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Paddington 2

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 5:04 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers 2017

You know what we don’t see enough of in movies?  Whimsy.  Movies, especially movies for families, don’t trust the audience enough to step away from the dazzle and the pratfall.  As entertaining as that can be, it is a relief to see a movie that trusts us enough to keep its tone gentle and, yes, whimsical.  And that makes it utterly beguiling.

There is a very brief refresher to introduce us to the backstory of the marmalade-loving Peruvian bear.  An Anglophile bear couple rescues a little cub and cancels their planned trip to London to raise him.  And then we catch up to Paddington.  His adoptive father has died and his adoptive mother, Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) has moved to an assisted living home in Peru.  Paddington, now living with the Brown family, is a cherished part of the neighborhood, always looking out for the members of the community.  Just one neighbor, cranky Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), a nosy self-appointed community watchman, keeps insisting that Paddington should not be there.

When the local antique shop receives a one-of-a-kind pop-up book showing London’s most iconic locations, Paddington realizes that it is the perfect gift for Aunt Lucy, who always dreamed of London but never been able to visit.  We go inside the book in an enchanting animated sequence, moving in and out of the beautifully crafted pop-ups.  Paddington takes jobs as a barber’s assistant and a window washer to earn the money to buy the book for his aunt, but things do not go very well and there are some mild slapstick catastrophes.

And then Paddington catches a thief stealing the pop-up book and in trying to catch him appears to be the culprit himself.  He is sentenced to prison, where things do not go well until his optimism and generosity — and recipe for marmalade, endear him to everyone, even the hot-tempered chef (Brendan Gleeson).  Paddington likes to quote Aunt Lucy, who said, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”

Hugh Grant has found his very best role as Phoenix Buchanan, a formerly successful actor with a plummy accent reduced to dog food commercials (wearing a dog suit), and a master of disguise who knows that the pop-up-book has a secret message leading to a cache of jewels.  It is impossible to imagine whether he or costume designer Lindy Hemming had more fun with the sheer preposterousness of Buchanan’s pretensions and wildness of his various get-ups, even when he is not in costume.  There’s a Da Vinci code-like treasure hunt as Buchanan tries to solve the puzzle before the Browns can track down the real thief and exonerate Paddington.  Oh, and Mr. Brown needs to resolve a bit of a mid-life crisis, Mrs. Brown wants to swim the Channel, the Brown children need to learn a couple of lessons, and there’s even a bit of a romance.  Plus, Aunt Lucy’s birthday is coming!

The movie follows its own advice, with kindness and courtesy in its story and story-telling, and the result is as irresistible as a marmalade sandwich proffered by a bear in a red hat.

NOTE: Stay for the credits and a delightful musical number

Parents should know that there is some mild gross-out humor and some peril and violence (no one badly hurt).

Family discussion: How can you follow Aunt Lucy’s advice to look for the good in people, and to be kind and polite?  Who do you know who follows those rules?

If you like this, try: the first “Paddington” movie and the books

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