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
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 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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The Book of Henry

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drug reference
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of child sexual abuse, attempted murder, suicide, medical issues, sad death, peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 2, 2017
Copyright 2017 Focus Features

I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for movies, even syrupy ones, about super-gifted kids and am generally willing to give them some leeway as metaphor or fairy tale.  So I’m okay with “August Rush,” “Pay it Forward,” “A Monster Calls,” etc.  But “The Book of Henry” crosses the line from syrupy to smarmy, and where it wanted to be endearing, it was annoying, and then infuriating.

Jaeden Lieberher, who is making a career out of playing preternaturally wise and powerful children, has the title role as Henry, an 11-year old who is the kind of genius only found in movies. Not only is he a total braniac who understands architecture, finance, electronics, existential conundrums, weapons, and engineering, he has a rapier wit and knows the difference between different kinds of tumors and can read an MRI. Furthermore, he is a near-empath who instantly understands the people he cares about. In other words, he is not a character; he is a symbol and his purpose in the story is to give other characters important life lessons.

Henry has a younger brother, Pete (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”), who is in the movie to play the role of Normal Kid. And they have a mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who is loving and devoted but irresponsible. Henry is the grown-up in the family, stopping at a phone booth after school to place complicated brokerage orders.

Let’s pause for a moment on that last point. Yes, I said phone booth. Even though the movie takes place sort of now (there are cell phones, a coffeemaker, video games, and a super-duper weapon), it has a deliberately retro feel. Henry and Pete use old walkie-talkies, barely a glimpse of a laptop (who needs one; Henry’s a walking Wikipedia). Susan is a waitress at a diner that could be out of the 1950’s, though her boss (“SNL’s” Bobby Moynihan) offers to pay her by direct deposit. You do not need to be Henry to figure out that this is supposed to lull us into cutesy-ness.

Henry has a crush on the girl next door, a classmate named Christina (Sia muse Maddie Ziegler), who lives with her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris), the town’s police commissioner. Henry senses that Glenn is abusing Christina. When Glenn’s position of power makes it impossible to protect her through official channels, he comes up with a dangerous plan to keep her safe.

To say more would be to risk spoilers, so I will just note that pretty much everything that happens after that is intended to be touching and poignant but  none of it is .   Lee Pace does his best with the thankless role of Doctor Perfect, who would make Prince Charming look like the guy who gets eliminated in the first episode of “The Bachelorette.” And Sarah Silverman adds some sass as Susan’s best pal, who joins her in wisecracks about how they aren’t rich and in getting drunk.  Christina has a lovely dance number in the school talent show.  And Watts is marvelous as always.  But the story’s preposterousness and manipulation thwarts their best efforts to provide some grounding.

Parents should know that the movie’s themes include child sexual abuse, attempted vigilante murder, and a very sad death of a child, and suicide. There is some strong language, a drug reference, and drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What should Susan have done about the couple in the store? What made Susan change her mind?

If you like this, try: “Phenomenon” and “Disturbia”

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Wonder Woman

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, some disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 2017

They finally got a DC Comics superhero movie right. While Marvel/Disney has managed to turn out a series of top-quality films that managed to achieve a range of vividly individual tones for the different characters and yet keep everyone in the same infinity stone universe, DC/Warners has stumbled, most recently with the ponderous and murky “Batman vs. Superman.” A comic book movie can have serious themes, but it has to be fun. DC managed that for television, but not for the big screen – until “Wonder Woman,” which hits the superhero sweet spot between new and familiar, funny and exciting, romantic and heroic.

Credit goes to director Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) and screenwriter Allan Heinberg for making a smart, entertaining film about the character created by the fascinating William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-trained lawyer/psychiatrist, feminist, and inventor of the lie detector.

There’s a bit of a slow start with an unnecessary origin story. Young Diana the only child on the island of Themyscira, populated by women warriors. She wants to study combat with her aunt, the fierce General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wants to keep her safe.

It is Diana’s destiny to fight, however. When handsome and dashing WWI pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is shot down near the island, Diana rescues him. Wrapped in the Wonder Woman version of the lie detector, the golden lasso, he explains that he is an American spy, working undercover, and that he has discovered a terrible weapon that the Germans will use to wipe out thousands, even millions of people, poison gas. Diana (Gal Gadot), convinced that only the Greek god of war, Ares, could be responsible for such chaos and catastrophe, and that if she leaves the island, she can find him, kill him, and restore to humanity the peace they were created for.

We are used to origin stories where an ordinary person has superpowers unexpectedly thrust upon him (almost always him), whether he is bitten by a radioactive spider, arrives from a planet with a red sun, or gets hit with gamma rays. It is always fun to see them learn what they can do. We get a bit of that here with an obligatory training montage showing Diana riding horses and developing her hand-to-hand combat skills. We get the obligatory “you have greater powers than you know.”

But what is refreshing in this film is that what comes as a surprise to her is not what she can do but what the rest of the world has to offer. Trevor is the first male human she has ever seen — and she sees all of him when he gets out of the bathing pool, though it is his watch, and not his body, that she finds surprising. When she leaves the island, everything is new to her — WWI-era London, a baby, the idea of marriage, clothing that may be fashionable but impedes movement.

Gadot, a veteran of the Israeli army has a warmth on screen that shines through her increasing engagement with the human world and her ferocious determination in battle. She and Pine have an engaging spark with some old movie-style repartee and sizzling glances. The movie, shot on film, not digital, has a lovely old-school glow as well. The action scenes are exciting and vibrant with character, not just about the stunts.

We have seen a lot of WWII on screen but not much of the Great War. WWI introduced one of the most terrible weapons in human history, a weapon so devastating and uncontrollable that it has been banned ever since. “Wonder Woman” wisely grounds this story in that moment, with poison gas being developed by the Germans, led by chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya, unfortunately perpetuating the comic book cliché of disfigured villains) and an officer named Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who has a juicily evil moment involving a gas mask.

If the “Justice League” trailer at the beginning does not give you a hint that somehow Diana will still be around in the 21st century, bookend scenes set in the present day (involving a delivery from Wayne Industries) alert you that her WWI experience is just the beginning. I have some problems with a turning point for Diana in he final confrontation that is disappointingly retro. Aside from these concerns, this film is cheeringly robust, vibrant, and exciting, worthy of the Amazon warrior and the early feminist who created her.

Parents should know that this film includes extended wartime and comic book violence, characters injured and killed including civilians and children, some disturbing and graphic images, some sexual references and mild sexual situation, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Diana’s mother tell her the truth? Why did Sir Patrick send Steve and Diana on the mission?

If you like this, try: the Wonder Woman comics and the book about the creator of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

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The Mummy

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and fantasy violence, chases, explosions, attacks, guns, knives, murder of parent and child, plane crash, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Universal

Disney has almost all of the Marvel superheroes. Warner Brothers has DC superheroes. 20th Century Fox has the Fantastic Four and perhaps someday will make a movie worthy of them. And so Universal wanted its own universe of supernatural characters. It does not have the rights to any superheroes, but it does have the monsters, including Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein’s monsters, Wolfman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Mummy.

This film is the first in a planned series of high profile, high-budget, interlocking stories featuring big stars, big stunts, and big special effects, set in what Universal has dubbed The Dark Universe. So, get ready for an Avengers/Justice League-style series of partnerships, cross-overs, and mash-ups.

We begin with “The Mummy,” possibly because the dashing Brendan Fraser updates starting in 1999 have made the story more familiar to 21st century audiences. Of course, those films were inspired by the Boris Karloff classic. This reboot retains very little from either beyond the idea of a deadly mummy from ancient Egypt.

This mummy is female. Her name is Ahmanet and she is played with feral ferocity by the very limber Sofia Boutella of “Star Trek: Beyond.” She was once in line to become ruler of the kingdom of ancient Egypt and be worshipped as a god. But when her father had a son, he became heir to the throne. Enraged, she murdered her father and the boy and his mother and traded her soul for power of life and death. She could not die, but she could be stopped with an elaborate mercury solution, and so she had been in a tomb in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) for thousands of years until American soldier and tomb raider Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his quippy sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson) come along to release her and her curse on the world.

With them is beautiful blond archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis of “Peaky Blinders”), along for exposition, retro rescuing, and some tiresome banter about a one-night stand with Nick.

Russell Crowe shows up as well, as a doctor who is obsessed with evil, though whether for it or against it is not entirely clear. To say more would be to spoil one of the film’s best ideas.

The real stars of the film are the stunts and special effects, which are great. Adrenalin junkie Cruise clearly has a blast racing ahead of, well, blasts, in the battle scenes, and, later, zombies as well. A plane crash scene is viscerally exciting, and sets up the movie’s funniest line later on.  But it cannot make its mind up whether it wants to be a high-concept adventure, a horror movie, or a campy comedy (zombie Jake Johnson continues to be quippy).

And Cruise is simply miscast. He is too old for the part of yet another of his callow cases of endearing arrested development.  It is one thing for a guy in his 20’s to joke about a one-night stand; it is uncomfortably skeevy for a guy, however handsome and eternally young (and still able to run very fast) in his 50’s.  By the time we see where this character is going in the movie’s final scenes, it is clear that this should have been the first act, not the last, and that this Dark Universe thing is going to be a long slog indeed.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/mythological violence and peril, undead, military weapons and explosions, plane crash, some graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some nudity and sexual references and insults

Family discussion: Was Nick telling the truth about the parachute?  What made him change his mind about Jenny?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Mummy” movies with Brendan Fraser and Boris Karloff

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor
Profanity: Schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017
Date Released to DVD: August 7, 2017

Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
Ah, the family car trip. Often excruciating, frequently tedious, always unforgettable. For this third in the “Wimpy Kid” movie series, based on the wildly popular books by Jeff Kinney, the story moves from the schoolyard to the highway as Greg and the Heffley family leave home for his great-grandmother’s birthday party. The kid actors from the first movie have grown up. Remember, one of the characters was played by Chloe Grace Moretz, recently in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” And if that doesn’t make you feel old, consider this: the entire cast has been replaced, with “Clueless” star Alicia Silverstone now playing the mom. Tom Everett Scott takes over the dad role from his “That Thing You Do” co-star Steve Zahn.

The Wimpy Kid stories are funny and reassuring for kids and tweens because they can laugh at and with Greg Heffley (now played by Jason Drucker) as he careens from one excruciatingly disgusting encounter to another, many involving human and animal bodily functions and the products thereof. “I like my family and all,” Greg explains, “I’m just not sure we were meant to live together.”

Greg has a dim older brother named Roderick (Charlie Wright), who mistakes the motel safe for a microwave, subjects Greg to an endless stream of demeaning comments, and explains his secret: “I spent years lowering Mom’s and Dad’s expectations.” He has a toddler younger brother who becomes a rage monster without the pacifier Dad has left behind because what better time to wean him than the road trip? Eventually, they will be joined by another passenger, a baby pig, won by the toddler at a county fair.

Along the way, the family encounters filthy motels, a rude bully Greg terms “Beardo,” and the worst horror of all — a Mom-demanded relinquishment of all devices. “This is an unplugged road trip,” she smiles at the boys. “The only connecting we’re going to do is with each other.” She even forces them to listen to dreadful music like — wait for it — the Spice Girls. And Greg has a secret goal. Trying to overcome public humiliation that has gone viral (“Now I’m a meme!”), he is determined to meet and create a video with his gaming idol at a Comic-Con-style gathering just “two inches on the map” from the party.

The kids in the audience, mostly fans of the book series, enjoyed it very much, but adults are likely to find it a very long haul indeed.

Parents should know that this film includes slapstick comic peril and violence (no one hurt), bodily function humor, and some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why do the worst parts of the trip make the family feel closer together? What was your favorite road trip with the family and why?

If you like this, try: the other “Wimpy Kid” movies and the books and “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”

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