Isle of Dogs

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:33 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Dog and human peril and violence, murder, sad death of parents, child injured badly, medical procedures, starvation and disease, skeletons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Issue of white American as the only one who takes on the villain
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
Say the title out loud. “Isle of Dogs” = “I love dogs,” get it? Even a three-word title of a Wes Anderson movie is a bit of a puzzle box. Anderson is the Joseph Cornell of filmmakers, with every item on screen and even those tucked away and not seen by the audience, every note on the soundtrack, meticulously assembled. His most ardent fans love the endless unpacking of detail and think there is a deeper meaning in the weirdness. I am less persuaded that there is always a deeper meaning, but I enjoy the singular peculiarity of his storytelling.

Like my favorite Anderson movie, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Isle of Dogs” is a story of talking animals told via stop-motion animation. This is a vastly more ambitious undertaking, based on an original story by Anderson with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, who appeared in Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” and also served as a casting director for this film and provided the voice for the movie’s bad guy.

Anderson’s intricate vision makes for exceptional world-building, and in this film he imagines a Japan 20 years from now, when political and environmental decay has progressed significantly but is seen as normal by the population. Mayor Kobayashi (Nomura) is the mayor of the (fictional) coastal metropolis called Megasaki City. He persuades the population that dogs are a pestilential force, bringing disease (“snout fever” and “dog flu”) to the city, and decrees that all dogs, even the beloved guard dog of his adopted son Atari (Koyu Rankin), must be deported to a nearby “island” made up of trash. The starving, diseased, homesick dogs have a bleak existence on the island. And then Atari arrives, in an airplane, in search of his beloved Spots. And a teenage American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) starts to investigate, with one of those old-school evidence walls covered with clues linked together by red yarn. Anderson’s worst and most tone-deaf choice here is to make the one white, American human character the only one with any integrity and ability to resolve the crimes against the dogs and community.

As in all Anderson films, the human characters deliver their lines in deadpan even while experiencing cataclysmic loss, urgent action, or ardent emotion. What some audiences experience as whimsical, charming, and witty, others see as cloying, twee, or claustrophobic. But he is a marvel at world-building and here, as in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” where the entire film is essentially a set of dollhouses over which he has complete control, he is at his best. The settings in this film are an astonishing achievement of imagination and skill, from the tears welling up in the eyes of a dog to the intricacy of the machinery. If he ever devotes as much attention to the humanity of his characters as he does to the brilliance of his props, he will no longer be admired primarily for his singular aesthetic vision but for his characters and stories.

Parents should know that this film includes diseased and starving animals, children and adults in peril, murder, death of parents, child injured badly, dog fights with animals injured and killed, skeletons, some disturbing images including surgery, brief strong language, and references to dogs mating.

Family discussion: Why were the dogs banned? Why was it important for them to vote on big decisions?

If you like this, try: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Kubo and the Two Strings”

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Animation Movies Talking animals

Pacific Rim Uprising

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:06 pm

B-
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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Love, Simon

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual references, language and teen partying
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family situations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
If you are scrolling through Netflix you may run across movies like 2000’s The Truth About Jane, where family or friends discover that someone is gay, get upset, try to deny it or force the gay person into therapy, and then learn in time for a big happy ending at a Pride parade that love is what matters, no matter who the person they love loves. A lot has happened in 18 years, and thankfully we are pretty much past the point where a story about a family freak-out over the discovery that someone is gay is worth making a movie about. Yet there are two elements that are notable about “Love, Simon.” It is the first major studio romantic comedy about a gay teenager. And, much more notable, the real issue is not about his being gay; it is just about his being a teenager.

“Love, Simon” is based on the award-winning book by psychologist Becky Albertalli. It is indeed a comedy. There are many very funny lines, and gems of comic performances by two of the adults in the film. The always-great Tony Hale (“Veep”) plays a high-spirited vice-principal who likes to confiscate cell phones and act like a princi-PAL, and Natasha Rothwell (“Insecure”) is absolutely hilarious as a put-upon drama teacher forced to direct a production of “Cabaret” that is required to include every student who wants to be in the cast. Making the adults in the story the comic relief is a very nice touch.

And it is definitely a romance. I can’t remember when I’ve heard an audience respond with cheers and applause as joyous as they did when the big kiss moment finally arrived. But what makes this film really special is that is about feelings everyone has — the feeling of being alone, outside some sort of magic circle everyone else seems to know how to get inside, the worry about letting people down, the soul-shrinking experience of actually letting them down even more than you feared, the terror of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, the joy of being seen and understood.

Nick Robinson (“The Kings of Summer”) plays Simon, a high school senior who has everything — loving, generous parents (who also happen to be gorgeous — Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner), a cute kid sister, and great friends with whom he shares “way too many iced coffees, bad 90’s movies, and gorge on carbs at the Waffle House.” His life is just about perfect except that he has not been able to find a way to tell anyone that he is gay.

The school has a gossipy website where a student who calls himself Blue says that he is gay but cannot come out. So Simon writes him as “Jacques” and the two of them instantly fall into a close, supportive friendship with perhaps a little bit of flirting. What makes this really great in the film is that it allows/requires Simon (whose full name, as he points out, means “he who hears” and “he who sees”) to look at every male student in the school differently, as he wonders which one is Blue and even pictures different students in the situations Blue describes. That experience, as much as the correspondence itself, widens his world and makes him more empathetic, similar to the different perspectives in last year’s “Wonder.”

An obnoxious student discovers the correspondence and threatens to publish it unless Simon helps him get close to Abby, a transfer student who has become a part of Simon’s group of friends.

A brief fantasy sequence about what being gay might be like in college is a lot of fun, and a scene where Simon imagines that heterosexual teens should have to come out to their parents is sharply funny. But what makes this movie special is its tender heart. It is wise about friendships, about those first tentative steps toward intimacy, about being honest, not just about what you are but who you are, and about the unforgettable tenderness of that first kiss.

Parents should know that the theme of this film is a gay high schooler struggling to come out and it includes kisses, a brief crude sexual reference, teen drinking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why could Simon tell Blue and Abby before Leah and his family? Would you like to have a “Secrets” website for your school?

If you like this, try: “G.B.F.,” “Never Been Kissed,” and “Easy A”

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Based on a book Coming of age GLBTQ and Diversity High School movie review Movies Movies Romance Stories about Teens

Tomb Raider

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 5:03 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong language (s-words, one mouthed f-word)
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, chases, guns, fights, explosions, many characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 16, 2018

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
A video game needs just enough narrative to add some stakes to the challenges. We care more about getting the avatar from A to B if there is a reason — a treasure, escaping the bad guys, revenge. And the action scenes need just enough complexity to hold our interest. The “reason” equivalent is our own skill and seeing if we can do better than an opponent or better than our last attempt. But a movie needs a story and characters and dialog that have to be familiar enough to be believable and new enough to hold our interest. And that is why it is much harder to translate a game to the big screen than it is a book or a play. And that is also why so far none of the attempts to do so have worked very well. It may be tough to get a video game avatar over a chasm or through a labyrinth, but it is even tougher to make her into a movie star, even when she is as appealing a character as adventurer Lara Croft.

The good news is that this reboot stars Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, a less remote, more real version of the character first played on screen by Angelina Jolie in two earlier “Tomb Raider” films, and by a bunch of pixels in a video game series. While the game version was idealized and the Jolie version was similarly polished, curvy, and near-all-powerful, swinging (literally) through her fabulous manor and ordering around her Alfred-like nerd-of-all-trades, this Lara is a little bit vulnerable and a little bit lost. We first see her losing a boxing match, forced to tap out before she loses consciousness in a choke hold. Because she will not sign papers declaring that her father is dead, though he has been missing for seven years, she cannot access his fortune or that fabulous manor.

Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) loves his daughter (though he calls her “Sprout,” a truly awful nickname). But devastated by the loss of his wife, he has spent most of his time away from Lara as he seeks some way to connect to the supernatural. He disappeared on an expedition to a remote island where the legend has it that an Egyptian queen with powers of life and death is entombed. Since the movie is called “Tomb Raider,” you know where this is going.

And you also know that who cares about the story, this is about the chases and stunts. There’s a good chase on a bicycle “fox hunt.” And there’s a great stunt in the middle of the film involving a rusted-out crashed plane stuck on a branch over a waterfall. Walt Goggins is a nicely creepy bad guy. But once they actually make it inside the tomb it gets too game-ish, and by the time it hints at another chapter, well, it’s game over.

Parents should know that this film include extended peril and violence, chases, guns, fights, explosions, many characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, some strong language

Family discussion: Why wouldn’t Lara sign the papers? How did growing up without a father influence her choices?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Tomb Raider” films with Angelina Jolie and the Brendan Fraser version of “The Mummy”

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A Wrinkle in Time

Posted on March 8, 2018 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and some violence, some scary images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 9, 2018

Copyright Disney 2018
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is one of my all-time favorite books. I loved it when I was 11, read it aloud to our children, and went on to read all of the sequels and most of her other books as well. So it was with a lot of anticipation, excitement, and not a little trepidation that I looked forward to the film.

On the one had, the book had been dismissed over the decades as unfilmable due to its planet-hopping storyline, fantastical characters, and genre-straddling themes. On the other hand, I have the utmost respect for director Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “13th”) and co-screenwriter Jennifer Lee (“Frozen,” “Zootopia”) and the all-star cast looked promising. I held my breath, crossed my fingers, and leaned forward and caught my breath as the iconic Disneyland castle in the opening logo suddenly…wrinkled.

Most of what I love about the book was beautifully realized, and the movie is sure to be a middle school sleepover perennial and a family favorite for generations. It’s made straight from the heart of people who remember what it feels like to be 12 — and the way we all become 12 again in moments of uncertainty. If there’s a bit more Oprah-esque “you go girl” and “living your best life” than in the book, well, the movie features not just Oprah (who was also in “Selma”) but a house-sized Oprah with lips and eyebrows that look like someone went overboard on the Bedazzler.

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is the daughter of two scientists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine). She was once a gifted and attentive student, but since the disappearance of her father, four years before the movie begins, she has been sullen and uncooperative. Mean girls pick on her, and when she responds by throwing a ball at the ringleader, she gets in trouble. Nothing makes sense to her, and she wonders if her father left because she was not good enough.

Meg has an exceptionally precocious six-year-old brother named Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). In the book, he is her bio-brother and they have two older brothers as well but in the movie it is just the two of them and Charles Wallace was adopted just before their father disappeared. Charles Wallace is one of the major challenges of adapting the book, because on the page he is endearingly hyper-aware and ultra hyper-articulate, but on screen it is difficult to make him believable and keep him from being annoying. It is one of the film’s most salient weaknesses that this critical character does not work.

Meg gradually learns that Charles Wallace has been befriended by three extraordinary and very strange women known as Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey). (NOTE: L’Engle insisted that there be no period after “Mrs” in the British style.) As disturbing as it is reassuring, they seem to know what the Murrys were working on, a form of “wrinkling” time and space to permit instantaneous travel to other planets that they call a tesseract. (For some reason, the explanation appears in the trailer, but not the film.)

Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), is a well-liked, confident boy who seems to have nothing in common with the Murray children. But one day he impulsively visits them, and stays for dinner, appreciating the warmth and acceptance in their home. And then the three ladies explain why they are there. They have heard a call for help. It is the children’s father. And they are there to help Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace rescue him from “the darkness.”

And so, the rest of the film is candy-colored CGI, as the group visits first a paradisiacal planet for no particular reason other than a romp through a delightful garden of gossipy flying flowers who communicate via color and a soaring tour on a creature like a flying green manta ray with a rainbow Reese Witherspoon face. They visit a psychic called the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) for more information about where Dr. Murry has gone, and finally they get to the planet where he is being held captive by an all-controlling force. The film brings to life one of the book’s most vivid scenes, with a pristine suburban street where every house has a child standing in the driveway bouncing a ball in perfect rhythm and all of the Stepford-style moms come out at the same moment to call them in to dinner. The book was written a a time of post-WWII concerns about conformity and “houses made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same.” But the image is just as compelling today. The 1950’s may have led to an explosion of “do your own thing” individuality in the mid-to late 1960’s and self-actualization in the me-decade 70’s, but the importance of intellectual courage, thinking for yourself, and challenging assumptions is even more important in the era of fake news and “both sides.”

The book’s most memorable message comes when Meg is told that what will help her to rescue her father is her faults. Though how those faults help is not as explicitly explained in the film, that idea retains its power here. That makes up for some faltering in the climax, some under-imagined images, and some distractions that seem to stem from a lack of trust in the audience. We don’t really need that extra back story on the mean girl or Calvin (an odd change from his home life in the books, which will be a problem if they decide to film the sequels) to understand what their insecurities are or the time spent cheering Meg on (and apologizing to her and deferring to her) without making it clear what her strengths are and how they are connected to her faults. It would be better to focus on the book’s rare combination of both faith and science and how important both are. In the book, the children visit the planets to learn about the darkness and to see that it can be overcome (Mrs Whatsit is the result of one such triumph). The movie leans more toward an Oprah-eque message of empowerment, so the focus is more on individual self-realization (and being appreciated by others, including Calvin, which seems to be his primary purpose in the story).

The three Mrses are not quite as fun as the movie thinks, though Mrs Who’s Bumblebee-like “post-language” use of quotations (always noting the nationality of the author, from Rumi and Shakespeare to Lin-Manuel Miranda and OutKast) is charming. But Reid is a heroine to root for, and the Murry family is one we are, like Calvin, glad to have a chance to visit.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril with some violence and scary images, issues of an absent father, a school bully, and an abusive parent.

Family discussion: What are your most valuable faults? Why was Meg so important to IT?

If you like this, try: “The Neverending Story,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and the Narnia series

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Family Issues Fantasy movie review Movies Movies Science-Fiction Stories About Kids
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