Thor: Ragnarock

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book fantasy peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017

Copyright Disney 2017
New Zealand director Taika Waititi is exactly what Marvel/Disney needed, a true fanboy who loves superheroes because they are fun. Away with you, brooding and tortured comic book characters! What we want to see is a superhero who gets messed with, some colorful characters, a fascinatingly deranged villain, some thrilling action and slamming special effects, a surprise cameo, and, after a suitable series of setbacks, triumph. Plus some post-credit scenes. There’s all of that in this movie, plus some of the funniest moments on screen this year. It is irreverent, even cheeky. It has a sense of humor about itself while never, ever making fun of comic books or their fans.

Waititi, with a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, has taken one of the most serious of the Avengers, with only Chris Hemsworth’s imperishable charm keeping him just this side of wooden, and made use of his fellow antipodean’s true superpower, which is that he is a superb comic actor.

What does Thor have going for him? He has his dad, the king of the gods, Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), his home, Asgard, his strength, his hair, his divinity, his confidence, and his hammer. He loses most of that pretty quickly, and stripped down Thor suddenly becomes a much more relatable character, more deserving of our support because he actually seems to need it. You might even say down to earth, except that earth does not really come into it this time.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Thor begins. “Oh, no, Thor is in a cage.” He’s not talking to us, and finding out who he is telling his story to is the first hint we get that we are operating in a slightly cracked universe. But then, reassuringly, Thor does his Thor thing and gets himself out of a big mess with endless panache.

And then things go wrong. The Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) turns up to crush his hammer in her hands. She intends to take over Asgard and there does not seem to be anything he can do about it. He ends up on a planet that is essentially a junk pile, where he is discovered by scavengers. “Are you a fighter or are you food?” they ask him. Before they can gobble him up, he is captured by another scavenger (a terrific Tessa Thompson), who turns out to have a connection to Asgard. But she sells him to the Grandmaster (a glam Jeff Goldblum), who runs a lucrative gladiator show for galactic fans. Waiting to go to battle in the arena, Thor meets the movie’s most endearing character, a rock creature named Korg, played by Waititi himself. And then Thor sees his opponent in the battle to the death: his old Avenger buddy Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). We may love seeing the Avengers join together to take on the bad guys, but we love seeing them fight each other, too, and the Thor/Hulk fight is a smash. Literally.

Loki is there, too, I’m happy to say, and I only wish that someday he will have a movie of his own. Tom Hiddleston’s silky bad boy admits at one point that his loyalties shift moment to moment, and his mercurial impishness is perfectly calibrated. Despite her best efforts, Blanchett’s villain is not nearly as interesting as the other characters, and the resolution does not have the emotional weight that it does in the comics. But she barely diminishes the sheer fun of this film and I hope Marvel keeps Waititi on the roster for as many of these as he is willing to take on.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for TWO extra scenes!

Parents should know that this is a superhero movie with a lot of peril and action-style fantasy violence and some disturbing images, some alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What does Loki want? Which Avenger would you most like to be? What makes someone significant?

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Avengers movies

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3D Action/Adventure Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel movie review Movies Movies Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel Superhero

Cars 3

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence including fiery car crashes, references to sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017
Copyright Disney/Pixar 2017

It’s better than “Cars 2,” but not as good as the first “Cars,” so it continues the saga of the second tier of Pixar movies.  Second-tier Pixar is pretty good. But this time the storyline is unlikely to be of much interest to children.  They’ll enjoy the race scenes (except for the ones that are too scary) and the silly humor.  But the theme of this film is the existential dilemma of an aging athlete.  While “Inside Out” and “Toy Story 3” addressed issues of growing older/up with infinite tenderness and sensitivity, “Cars 3,” with the help of generous samples of Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson character from the first film, has appropriated the plots of many of the “Rocky” movies, with now-champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) confronted with his own mortality.  I know; they’re machines, but apparently they have parents and childhoods and lifespans.

Lightning is beaten by a super-slick competitor dashingly named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who looks like he is visiting from another Disney movie, “Tron.”  And there’s another blow.  Lightning has loved being sponsored by his friends at Rust-Eze, but the company has been sold and his new sponsor is the smooth, corporate Sinclair (Nathan Fillion), who tells him that if he does not win his next race, he has to stop racing all together.

But racing is all Lightning knows or cares about.  If he can’t race, who is he?

Sinclair has a very high-tech training facility that’s all about cybermetrics. Lighting is assigned a new trainer, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), who is essentially a stopwatch on wheels.  Everything is about readouts and algorithms.  Lightning takes her out on the beach to show her what real racing is.  And he decides that his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, I mean Doc Hudson, may be gone, but perhaps he can find Doc’s mentor, and gain some wisdom.

Lighting and Cruz end up competing in what they think is a race but what turns out to be a demolition derby (pretty scary for G).  They squabble and make up and Cruz confides that she once dreamed of racing.  They do find Doc’s old friends, led by Smokey (Chris Cooper) and his adorable sidekicks.

It has talking cars, and kids will like that. And it doesn’t have the bombast and over-complexity of “Cars 2.”  But it also does not have the heart we have come to rely on from Pixar, and if we feel disappointed, it is only because they have set the bar so high.

Parents should know that despite the G rating, this film has characters in peril including scary 3D car crashes and fire, many references to a sad death and to the challenges of aging, and a reference to unsupportive parents.

Family discussion: Why did Lou take other children’s toys? Who is your mentor and who can you help as Doc Hudson helped Lightning?

If you like this, try: the other “Cars” movies and “A Bug’s Life”

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3D Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Fantasy Movies Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action/comic-book peril and violence with guns and explosions, characters killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: August 22, 2017

Copyright 2017 Marvel Studios
Copyright 2017 Marvel Studios
Remember about a week ago when I said that the baby panda in “Born in China” was the most adorable creature on earth? That may still be, but Baby Groot is probably the most adorable baby in the universe. “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2” opens up with a bang — a wild action scene as our heroes and anti-heroes fight a huge monster that is out of focus and at the side of the screen as we watch Baby Groot happily dancing to ELO’s lilting “Mr. Blue Sky.”

“A little good, a little bad, bit of both,” Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) promised his fellow Guardians and us at the end of the first film. And that’s what we get in this sequel, still delightfully off-kilter, still deliciously irreverent, and still delectably scored with 70’s pop songs. “Can you hold the banter until after the space battle?” one character asks. Probably not, and we would not want it any other way.

Despite the indicators the in post-credits scene from the first film, it is a relief to report that this movie is not about Thanos or another infinity stone. It is a more personal story, giving the characters a chance to know each other and us to know them, too.

Peter was born in Missouri to a single mother who died of cancer when he was ten, then captured by the blue-faced space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker), who was hired to deliver him to his father but instead kept him as a sort of mascot/apprentice. In Vol 2 Peter meets his father, a “celestial” named Ego (really) with his own planet. And Zamora (Zoe Saldana) meets up with her estranged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). I don’t mean “estranged” like having trouble agreeing on what to get Mom for Mother’s Day; I mean estranged like trying to kill one another.

Ego is accompanied by a new character named Mantis (Pom Klementieff) a shy and inexperienced empath who can read and sooth the emotions of others. As Peter gets to know his father, and even achieve his boyhood dream of tossing a ball back and forth with him, in typically off-kilter Guardians of the Galaxy way, the group is being chased down by a race of beautiful gold people who claim to be genetically perfect, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), via drone-style attack ships. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) could not resist stealing some of their precious batteries, the very ones Ayesha had hired them to protect. They are also being sought after by Yondu, who was expelled from the tribe of space thieves led by Sylvester Stallone (really, and it kind of makes sense because he does look and sound like an alien) for keeping Peter; kids are supposed to be off limits.

The banter is fine; with very funny references to “Cheers” and to David Hasselhoff and “Knight Rider.” The visuals are imaginative and striking and the battle scenes well staged. I got lost in the last one, but maybe we are supposed to. Writer/director James Gunn has an outstanding sense of pacing and tone. And I like the X-Men-style shifts of alliance. It is especially appropriate for characters who are “a little good, a little bad” to be surrounded by characters who are, too. While the father-son dynamic story does not always work, Baby Groot more than makes up for it, not just in adorable quotient but in what we learn in seeing the other characters interact with him.

“All any of you do is yell at each other,” Nebula correctly points out. “You are not friends.” “No, we are family,” Drax (Dave Bautista) replies. And we’re starting to feel like they’re our family, too.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end for several extra scenes. You won’t want to miss the one with Groot.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/comic book/action violence and peril with some disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some strong language, sexual references and and potty humor.

Family discussion: How did meeting his father change Peter’s view of family? Which switch of allegiance was most surprising?

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Avengers”

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The Boss Baby

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: "Formula" that keeps babies from growing up
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style action peril and violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2017
Copyright Dreamworks 2017
Copyright Dreamworks 2017

Yes, sure, babies are adorable and it is wonderful fun to nibble their toes and kiss the backs of their necks. But let’s be honest. They are also tiny tyrants. Who decides when it is time to eat and sleep? It is not the adults in the household. And who is no longer the top priority in the home anymore? The older child! (Let me state for the record that my two younger sisters are lovely people and I couldn’t be luckier to have them as siblings, but those first few months are tough.)

“The Boss Baby,” inspired by the Marla Frazee book, takes these ideas hilariously to the extreme with a baby who is literally the boss.  He arrives complete with suit, tie, Rolex, briefcase, and the ultra-adult voice of Alec Baldwin. This is deeply disturbing for Tim (Miles Bakshi, grandson of animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi), whose previously blissful life of undiluted devotion from his mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Jimmy Kimmel) is destroyed by this demanding creature and it seems that only Tim really understands what a monster he is.

Somehow, Mom and Dad, a sweet couple who both work for a pet food company, can only see the baby’s cute little face and have no idea that the baby is really a spy, even though “if things weren’t to his immediate satisfaction, he had a fit.”  They are so numb from sleep deprivation and so captivated by what looks to them like an infant that they never suspect there is anything unusual going on.  But Tim overhears the Boss Baby talking to his office — and then the Boss Baby blandly tosses some money his way and asks for some sushi: “I’d kill for a spicy tuna roll.”

Once Tim learns that the baby will return to his office after his mission is complete, he and the baby join forces to take on the real villain of the story — I will not spoil his very funny nefarious plan.

Director Tom McGrath says that this film is a tribute and apology to his older brother, because like all younger siblings, he was for a time the “boss baby.”  He gives the story a pleasantly retro look, setting, and soundtrack, evocative of old-school cartoons and an era before everyone was mesmerized by devices. It is surprisingly funny and even more surprisingly sweet. Tim is a great kid, brave, smart, and wonderfully imaginative, and it is nice to see a movie for children that is about something other than following your dreams or learning to be confident. It’s about visceral feelings everyone will recognize — worrying that there is not enough love to go around, jealousy, competitiveness. And it is also about feelings we should recognize but too often overlook: the importance of imagination and the pleasures of being a kid.

NOTE: Stay all the way through the credits for an extra scene!

Parents should know that there is cartoon-style peril and violence along with some potty humor and schoolyard language.  The theme of the movie centers on issues of sibling rivalry.

Family discussion:  Why wasn’t the Boss Baby sent to earth as a regular baby? What are the best and worst parts of having a sibling?

If you like this, try: the “Madagascar” films, from the same director

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Animation Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Scene After the Credits Stories About Kids

Fifty Shades Darker

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril including gun threats, helicopter crash, domestic and child abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: May 8, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01MTD0LE5
Copyright 2016 Universal Pictures
Copyright 2016 Universal Pictures

Ibsen had it right in “A Doll’s House.” When his heroine walked out and slammed the door at the end of the play, he left it there. She didn’t come back in two sequels. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, wearing bangs, the universal signifier of adorkability), despite her name, is not that resolute. In “Fifty Shades of Gray” she was a shy college student introduced to the Red Room of Pain and the world of bondage and submission by fabulously handsome and fabulously wealthy and fabulously troubled Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). As he explains to her, it is the submissive who has the power in the relationship. The dominant inflicts pain but the submissive sets the limits. Ana set the ultimate limit by walking out on Christian at the end of the first film. But just days later, he comes to a photography show featuring six huge portraits of Ana, buys them all because he doesn’t want other people gawking at her. The woman who just left him nevertheless consents to let him take her to dinner (“because I’m hungry”), and then invites him to dinner. After first insisting there would be no sex and then that they need to take it slowly, of course they end up having sex, and pretty soon he’s spanking her again, but only after she asks for it.

Maybe if you turned off the sound, it all might seem less dull and silly, like the kind of high-end perfume commercials they only show before Christmas and Valentine’s Day. With the sound on, it alternates between syrupy pop songs and clunky dialogue. Fans of the books may enjoy seeing the characters on screen but those unfamiliar with what I will generously call the storyline will find it more like a random series of what I will generously call events. Putting the book on screen reveals its essential flimsiness, its origins as “Twilight” fan fiction showing through. As with “Twilight,” this is the story of a girl whose purity of heart is so powerful she is able to tame the ultimate predator. Like “Twilight,” he is surrounded by a large, complicated, powerful family, most of whose members should have been jettisoned for the movie version because they do not add anything. Unlike “Twilight,” which was explicitly envisioned as a romance without sex (until it wasn’t), this is a shipper, with lots and lots of sex. While there is much talk about a “vanilla” sex life, there is also a lot of naughty stuff with fancy lingerie (where did it disappear to between the apartment and the party?) and sex toys (“That is NOT going in my butt!” Ana says merrily at the sight of a pretty set of Ben Wa balls).

While both Ana and Christian are supposed to be driven for professional achievement, they do not spend much time actually working. Ana loves her job as an assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) the head of fiction for a small independent publisher. About half an hour after we realize he is a scummy guy who is trying to have sex with her, she realizes he is a scummy guy who is trying to have sex with her. So of course Christian has him fired and Ana gets his job. Seriously, I have seen six year olds playing with Barbies who came up with more believable workplace storylines.

Meanwhile Ana is bothered by Christian’s past, including an abused drug addict mother who died of an overdose, a suicidal ex-sub who is obsessed with him, and the older woman who seduced him when he was 15 and introduced him to the pleasures of pain (Kim Basinger, herself a pioneer of pretty, soft-focus soft-core S&M in “9 1/2 Weeks”). And Ana is trying to get Christian to tell her about his past, which begins with her drawing a line with red lipstick around his scarred but super-jacked chest to delineate what she should and should not touch. She apparently redraws it on him every day because it is still there days later, no smudges.

Sam Taylor-Johnson brought some humor and a woman’s perspective to the first chapter. She also streamlined it to remove irrelevant and distracting details, left in here for no reason. How does Ana not know Christian’s housekeeper and why is there a scene of their first meeting? Also, there are a lot of lacy little underpants in this movie, mostly being removed. There is also a situation where a lot of misery would have been avoided with a phone call or text message and yet it doesn’t happen, for no reason other than prolonging the agony.

This sequel, reportedly with more involvement by the author, is lackluster fan service. I’d even call it vanilla.

NOTE: Stay through the beginning of the credits for a teaser of part three, coming out in time for Valentine’s Day 2018.

Parents should know that this movie includes very explicit sexual references and situations, sexual harassment, extensive nudity, sex toys and issues of bondage and submission, very strong language, peril including a gun and a helicopter crash, and spouse and child abuse.

Family discussion: Why did Christian tell Ana not to touch his chest? Why did Ana care so much about her job?

If you like this, try; “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “9 1/2 Weeks”

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