Game Night

Posted on February 22, 2018 at 10:54 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, sexual references and some violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, knives, chases
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018

Kylie Bunbury, from left, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in “Game Night.” (Warner Bros.)
“Game Night” is yet another raunchy action comedy about (mostly) white suburbanites who accidentally get in over their heads with criminals and manage to work through their personal issues as they win out over the bad guys with a combination of luck, plot contrivances, and learning opportunities. Thanks to winning performances from the always-reliable Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams this little trip from boringtown to crazytown and back is watchable, with a few clever twists and across the board strong support from the cast.

Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) share a strong competitive streak, a love for games of all kinds (their wedding reception featured a Dance Dance Revolution machine), and a fertility problem, that, in the fairy tale world of this movie, seems to be attributable to Max’s stress over his more successful brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). When Brooks returns after a year in Europe just in time for game night at Max and Annie’s house, Brooks’ passive aggressive and sometimes just aggressive needling just adds to the stress.

The regulars at game night are Kevin (Lamorne Morris of “New Girl”) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), a couple since middle school who get caught up in a conflict over a sexual encounter one of them might have had when they were on a Ross and Rachel-style break, and Billy (Billy Magnussen), a dimwit who brings a different and even dimmer girl every time. At one time, the group included the next door neighbors Gary (Jesse Plemons), a cop, and his wife Diane, but after their divorce Max and Annie stopped inviting Gary because he is kind of creepy.

Brooks invites everyone to the house he has rented for the next game night and promises it will be bigger and better than ever. This time, Billy brings a date who’s got game, Sarah (“Catastrophe’s” Sharon Horgan). Brooks tells them he has hired one of those companies that stages fake crimes for them to solve and the prize is the vintage red Stingray that was Max’s dream car. Just as it begins, though, Brooks is kidnapped for real, which everyone thinks is part of the game. Mayhem, and occasional hilarity, ensue, too often undercut by unnecessary sloppiness in the screenplay, which subverts its own tired premises for no particular reason. All of the highlights of the film are in the trailer except for a funny sequence at the beginning of the credits. If they had given the same attention to detail to the rest of the film, Max and Annie would really be winners.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong and crude language, extended comic peril and violence with some grisly and disturbing images, guns, punches, chase, knife, characters injured and killed, and sexual references including fertility issues.

Family discussion: What makes some people extra competitive? What’s your favorite game? How do gaming skills help these characters solve problems?

If you like this, try: “Date Night”

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Annihilation

Posted on February 22, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, many grisly and disturbing images, animal attacks, guns, explosives, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018
Copyright Paramount 2018

“Annihilation” is based on the Nebula Award-winning first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, adapted by director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and Army veteran, who joins a group of woman investigating an ominous anomaly the government is calling the shimmer. It looks like an rainbow prismed oil spill in the air. An area around a lighthouse is glowing and oscillating. Is it aliens? Is it God? Is it dangerous? Well, take a look at the title of the movie.

Whatever it is, it is expanding rapidly, posing a threat to pretty much everywhere. “The silence around it is louder than usual,” one observer notes. All missions, manned and unmanned, to investigate have produced no information and no human or drone sent inside has come back. Until one, an Army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband. A year after he left, he shows up at their home, dazed and critically ill.

And so Lena joins the next group going inside, along with Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist leading the team, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a shy physicist. The film is told in flashback, as Lena is being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, so we know that she will be the only one of the group to survive. We know what happened. We will see how.

The New Yorker calls VanderMeer “the King of Weird Fiction” and the Southern Reach trilogy “arresting, unsettling, and unforgettable” and “meditations on the theme of epistemic pessimism, in the tradition of Kafka.” I think what that means is that many science fiction and fantasy writers, even the most imaginative and compelling, base their stories on extrapolating what is already here, whether apocalyptic destruction of the planet due to environmental neglect or aliens who are a reflection of whatever geopolitical issues we are struggling with. Generally, though, the fundamental rules, the ones we take for granted so much we are not even aware we are taking them for granted, apply, including the rules of dramatic fiction that go back thousands of years. Hubris invites catastrophe. Bad guys want to control everything. Courage and honor triumph. VanderMeer, let’s just say, goes another way. Instead of taking what we have and know and projecting it in a more extreme form, he takes what we have and know and bends reality — and our minds — to make us think about how much we do not know. Inter-species mutations are occuring, suggesting that the shimmer somehow dissolves what we think of as immutable barriers, the ones that define our sense of the world and our sense of ourselves. “It’s literally not possible,” a team member says. “It’s literally what’s happening,” another responds.

One of the first questions we hear at the beginning of the film, as Lena is being something between interrogated and debriefed, is “What did you eat?” Her group had rations for two weeks but survived for months. “I don’t remember eating,” she says. Later we will see the group, dazed, trying to remember what has happened and trying to figure out how much time has gone by based on how much food is gone. They do not know where they are or how long they have been there. Their communications technology does not work. Even the most basic technology, a compass directed only by the magnetism of the North Pole, does not work. They are literally disoriented. The women are there because of their expertise in science, but they cannot even manage some of the most fundamental cognitive tasks. They are not sure whether they cn trust each other. They are there to observe and report but they cannot trust their perceptions or analysis.

And we may not be able to trust our own. This movie puts its cards on the table with an opening that reveals the end. This will be an escape room/haunted house set in the wilds of the Florida swamp story with Lena as the “final girl,” the last woman standing. “It all goes back to the first cell,” we hear Lena tell her class of biology students. Cells do not die; they reproduce. Everything alive is a piece of the first cell. As the women on this mission have to decide whether they want to understand or fight the shimmer, another option presents itself.

Garland uses luscious, even seductive visuals in the verdant Florida swamp setting to beguile and horrify us, sometimes both at once. This is more than mind-bending; it is mind-expanding, something of an intellectual shimmer creating a cognitive distortion of its own.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some very grisly and disturbing images, guns, grenade, fire, suicide, animal attacks, some strong language, and explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: Why did Lena say she owed it to Kane to go on the mission? Why didn’t she tell the other women about her relationship to Kane? What would you do if you were in charge of containing the Shimmer? What is the relationship of this story to Lena’s lecture about cells?

If you like this, try: “Arrival,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Solaris,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Midnight Special,” and “Coherence”

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Black Panther

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 6:38 pm

A-
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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Samson

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 5:10 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and battle sequences
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, murder, torture, battle scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018

The Biblical story of the Jewish man who still stands as the exemplar of strength has been brought to the screen by Pure Flix, a sober, sincere retelling of the story that is intended for both religious and secular audiences. As Hollywood has recognized several times in the past, including a big-budget studio epic from Cecil B. De Mille, the story has all of the essentials for drama, a hero of extraordinary power who suffered loss and betrayal and ultimately sacrificed himself to defeat the Philistine leaders who were oppressing his people.

Copyright 2018 Pure Flix

Samson is played by Taylor James, a British actor who had a small part in the “Justice League” movie. In the beginning of the film he is confident and impetuous. He has pledged a life of piety, which means no drinking and never cutting his hair. In return, he has been gifted with great strength. He is not afraid to fight. But he does not consider that it may not be he who pays the consequences. King Balek (an icy Billy Zane) commands a powerful army and does not hesitate to murder the Jews who object, even in the mildest terms, to his brutal demands.

And then Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman. His parents (Lindsay Wagner as Zealphonis and Rutger Hauer as Manoah) know that a marriage would create great risk for the couple and for the Jewish community. But Samson is sure he can make it work. It is a tragic mistake.

The screenwriters made some good choices in expanding the story, creating parallels between the two fathers, Manoah and Balek, and their sons. Balek is as cruel and demanding with his son, Rallah (Jackson Rathbone, in one of the film’s strongest performances) as he is with the Jews. Rallah’s struggle to find his own way gives more texture to the story.

The ambitions of the filmmakers are admirable, but a bit beyond their capacity and it has an amateurish quality that makes this more like the movies you see in Sunday school than the movies you see in theaters. Pure Flix is not Cecil B. De Mille, and director Bruce MacDonald’s staging of the big fight scenes and the literally crashing climax lacks intensity. But it is a respectful and heartfelt portrayal of a story whose power is undimmed over the millennia.

Note: Other movie versions of this story include 2013’s Samson, 1984’s Samson and Delilah, Cecil B. De Mille’s 1948 Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature, and the animated Keep the Trust: The Story of Samson and Delilah

Parents should know that this film includes extended violence including murder and battle scenes with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: How does Samson change over the course of the film? Why does he change? Why does Delilah cut his hair?

If you like this, try: “The Ten Commandments” and “The Nativity Story”

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Early Man

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor and some action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Copyright 2018 Summit

Even lesser Aardman is still worth watching. “Early Man” is decidedly lesser Aardman than the sublime “Wallace and Gromit” series and “Shaun the Sheep,” but that still makes it a pleasant little treat.

The “early men” are Stone Age denizens Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his friends, led by the Chief (Timothy Spall), who appears to be quite elderly, but that’s by Stone Age standards. He’s in his 30’s. These people are extremely primitive. They live in caves and their most advanced technology is Flintstones-style use of animals (beetles as hair clippers, tiny crocodiles as clothespins for what barely, and I mean that literally, qualify as clothes). They are not quite sure what it means to be human, and I mean that literally as well. One “member” of their group is a boulder they refer to as “Mr. Rock.” They barely qualify as hunter/gatherers. While they go out with spears every day to try to get rabbits to eat, they are not very good at communicating with each other, or aiming, or hitting anything they aim at.

And then one day their idyllic little territory is invaded by a group riding armor-clad mammoths. It is the Bronze Age and they want to take over the area for mining. Ultimately, it will come down to an unusual but rather progressive way for solving border disputes: a soccer game (which they call football). On one side, champions who are highly skilled professionals with lots of experience but are arrogant prima donnas. On the other side, a bunch of people who have not yet invented the wheel and have never played before. But they have two advantages: a gifted Bronze Age player who has never been allowed on the field because she is a woman (now you know why we call sexism prehistoric), and, just possibly, the ability to work together as a team.

I am a devoted Anglophile, but got the strong sense that some of the references went past me and are only understandable to true insiders, especially those who follow soccer, I mean football. Some of Aardman’s quirky whimsy flickers in now and then. The opening title cards tell us when and where we are: “The Neo-Pleistocene Era”/“near Manchester”/“around lunchtime”). The message bird played by “The Trip’s” Rob Brydon is very funny, too, and the tactile, bug-eyed goofiness of the Aardman characters is always endearing.

Parents should know that there is some comic peril and violence and threatened more serious violence as well as some schoolyard language and potty humor.

Family discussion: Why did the Bronze Age community develop when the Stone Age did not? Will the Stone Age people try to get some of the advantages of the Bronze Age? Why did learning about the past make them doubt themselves?

If you like this, try: “The Crudes” and the “Wallace and Gromit” and “Shaun the Sheep” series

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