Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

B +

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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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Pitch Perfect 3

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language and some action
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic/action violence, peril, explosions, fire
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2017

When a franchise runs out of ideas, it’s time to stop, even if the characters and music are still delightful. When a franchise descends to having its own characters wink at the audience with jokes about how it’s run out of ideas, and resorts to just (literally) setting things on fire, not once but twice in it’s 90ish minute runtime, it’s one movie past time to stop. Not that the previous two films had much of a storyline, but compared to this one, they were the Iliad and the Odyssey. It wasn’t fun to hear Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) tell Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) that she’s stupid one time. It borders on agonizing by the third time.

The music is still delightful, exquisitely harmonized and choreographed covers of songs that it is surprising and fun to hear performed that way, especially in the obligatory riff-off, where this edition’s twist is that the other groups don’t care and use — gasp! — instruments!

The original Bellas are all out in the working world and not very happy about it. When Emily, who is still in college and performing with a new group of Bellas, invites them to a “reunion,” they think they are being invited to sing but learn they are just there to cheer on the new group. They decide that finding a way to sing together again is the most important thing in the world, and Aubrey (Anna Camp) suggests they contact her dad in the military to perform for the USO. Chloe (Brittany Snow) points out that there doesn’t seem to be much point if there isn’t a competition. Wink!

And so the Bellas go to Europe to perform for the troops, along with a country group called Saddle Up and a very sophisticated female rock group led by Calamity (Ruby Rose). And DJ Khaled (playing himself) is going to pick one of them to be his opening act because, oh, who cares that it makes no sense; at least Chloe gets to feel that she’s in a competition. Continuing to scrape the bottom of the storyline barrel, the movie then gives us not one but two distant daddy issues, neither of which matters at all, though it’s always good to see John Lithgow.  And there is barely a flicker of love interest with a couple of guys who are so generic they seem to have wandered in from a Hallmark Christmas movie.

By the time we get to the end more than one character has made a choice that is completely inconsistent and/or nonsensical because no one seems to be paying attention to anything but the musical numbers, which continue to be delightful. Skylar Astin, Ben Platt, and Adam Devine escaped this mess, and anyone who is not a major fan of the franchise would do well to do the same.

Parents should know that this film includes some very crude sexual references and language, some comic peril and action including martial arts and explosions.

Family discussion: Why did the Bellas want to compete so badly?  Were you surprised by Beca’s decision?

If you like this, try: the first two movies in the series and listen to a capella groups like Pentatonix and Home Free

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Ferdinand

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril and violence including slaughterhouse and bullfights.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2017
Copyright BlueSky 2017

I warn you — a “however” is coming, maybe more than one.

There’s a lot to like in this affectionate version of the book by Munro Leaf about Ferdinand, the bull who did not want to fight; he just wanted to smell the flowers. WWE star John Cena provides a warm, inviting voice for the title character, and Kate McKinnon steals the show as his “calming goat.” The artwork is imaginative and colorful. However, the slight story of the book has been expanded to fill out a feature, and some of the choices are worse than just padding; they are misguided, distracting, even disturbing, especially for the youngest viewers.

Leaf’s original story and the lovely Oscar-winning 1938 Disney animated short are beautifully simple. While most bulls are ferocious and proud to fight matadors, Ferdinand is a gentle soul who just wants to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers. The men who are looking for the fiercest bull of all arrive just as Ferdinand reacts to being stung by a bee. Mistakenly believing that he is a powerfully furious animal, they bring him to the bullring, where he refuses to fight.

The Disney film is eight minutes long and tells the entire story. This version, from Blue Sky, gives us a meandering tale about Ferdinand, bred in a facility that supplies bulls for bullfighters. As a young calf, he is bullied by the others, especially the alpha bull, Valiente, who suffers from what me might term bovine toxic masculinity.

Ferdinand adores his kind-hearted father (Jeremy Sisto), asking him, “Can I be a champ without fighting?” “I wish the world worked that way for you,” his father says before he leaves for the ring. He never returns home.

Ferdinand runs away and finds a perfect home, a flower farm.  He is adopted by Nina, who is so devoted to him that she has him cuddle on the sofa next to her and sleep in her bed, even after he grows to the size of an SUV.

After an adventure that includes a cleverly-constructed scene in yes, a china shop, Ferdinand ends up back at the ranch, where Lupe (McKinnon), his calming goat, declares that she will be his coach for outsmarting the matador.   Ferdinand learns that the only options for the bulls are the ring or the slaughterhouse. He must rescue two of the bulls who taunted him before they are turned into hamburger, and then find a way to survive the bullring.

McKinnon has the same lighting-fast fluidity of mood and character that made Robin Williams an ideal choice to provide the voice for the genie in “Aladdin.”  She is in constant conversation with her many selves, and it is hilarious.  However.  The palpable padding of the storyline would not be a serious problem except for the misjudgment about the presentation of the fatal options available to the bulls.  It is impossible, even for a child, to watch the rescue from the slaughterhouse without recognizing what all of those scary-awful machines are designed to do.  Parents who do not want to answer some tough questions about dinner — or reconcile themselves to a vegetarian menu — should stick with the Disney version.

Parents should know that this movie has peril and violence, including low-key depictions of a slaughterhouse and a bullfight, as well as some schoolyard language and potty humor.

Family discussion: Why were the other bulls mean to Ferdinand? Why were the horses mean? Why did Ferdinand want to rescue bulls who were mean to him?

If you like this, try: the book and the Disney animated version of this story and the “How to Train Your Dragon” series

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

B +

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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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I, Tonya

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity
Profanity: Extensive very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including attack
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017

Copyright 2017 Neon
In one of “I, Tonya’s” most striking scenes, Margo Robbie as figure skating star Tonya Harding looks at herself in the mirror after applying her make-up for a competition. It is stark, garish, clown-like, and scary, less like beauty than like warpaint. Harding is trying to hide the heartbreak of her life when she is on the one place where everything is pretty and perfect, but in trying to make herself look pretty and perfect she has created a monster. That scene exemplifies the movie’s themes about public and private personas and the way they can crash into each other with terrible destructive force.

In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, one of Harding’s rivals, was attacked by a Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), who had been hired by two of history’s most incompetent criminals, Harding’s estranged husband, Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dimwitted friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Though Harding was not involved or even aware of this plan, news reports of the era emphasized the contrast between ice princess Kerrigan, and blue-collar Harding. In reality, Kerrigan was also from a modest background, but her appearance and routines were more elegant and graceful, while Harding adopted a bad girl persona, calling herself the “Charles Barkley of figure skating.” The problem is that figure skating is not just about skill and technique. It is about the show, and it is about the persona. Judges and fans expect more than athletic achievement.
They expect elegance and grace on and off the rink. They want the ice princess.

Allison Janney is incendiary as Harding’s abusive mother, constantly pushing her and demeaning her, often hitting her, too. With no affection or approval at home, she was drawn to Gilhooly, the first male to pay any attention to her, and when he became abusive, that seemed normal, too.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Stepmom,” “Love the Coopers”), promise us at the beginning a story “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews,” and they deliver. Like “The Disaster Artist,” this film takes us behind the scenes of a real-life catastrophe based on dreams of stardom, hopeless miscalculation about their own abilities, and a distorted, media-fueled idea of reality. We may watch expecting to laugh and feel superior, but the prismatic approach, with characters speaking to us to explain their perspectives (or try to put the blame on each other) is surprisingly sympathetic, grounded, and insightful.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking, drugs, smoking, and violence, including domestic abuse.

Family discussion: Who was responsible for attacking Nancy Kerrigan? Why does the movie call itself “irony-free?” Do you agree that Americans “want someone to hate?”

If you like this, try: “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” and “Tonya Harding: Anything to Win”

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