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Guardians of the Galaxy
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Release Date:
August 1, 2014

 

Noah
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content
Release Date:
March 28, 2014

Get on Up
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations
Release Date:
August 1, 2014

 

Finding Vivian Maier
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Not rated
Release Date:
April 11, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout
Release Date:
August 1, 2014

 

Sabotage
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating:
Rated R For strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use
Release Date:
March 28, 2014

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

posted by jmiller
A-
Lowest Recommended Age:4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating:Rated PG for battle sequences and frightening moments.
Movie Release Date:2005
DVD Release Date:2006

The perennial children’s classic by C. S. Lewis has been lovingly, thrillingly, enchantingly, brilliantly brought to screen in this flawless adaptation of the first of the “Narnia” series. (Note for purists — yes, it is chronologically the second in the order of the story, but it was the first Lewis wrote.) It is one of the best films of the year for any and all ages.


Four children, oldest brother Peter (William Moseley), sister Susan (Anna Popplewell), brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and youngest Lucy (Georgie Henley) are sent to a huge old house in the country for safety during the bombing of London in World War II.

Told to stay out of the way of its owner, “The Professor” (James Broadbent), and stuck inside on a rainy summer day, they play hide and seek. Lucy sneaks into a huge “wardrobe” (a piece of furniture that is something like a closet). Behind all the fur coats, she finds pine branches and suddenly under her heel, there is a crunching of snow.


She meets a faun named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) who at first thinks she must be some kind of beardless dwarf and then realizes she is a “daughter of Eve” — a human. He tells her she is in Narnia and invites her to tea. Enticed by his offer of friendship and the promised sardines, she goes with him to his little house. But it turns out he did not have friendship in mind. The evil witch who calls herself a queen has kept Narnia in a perpetual winter without Christmas for a hundred years has issued an order that any humans must be brought to her because of a prophecy that four humans will reclaim the kingdom.


Tumnus cannot go through with it, so he tells Lucy to leave before the witch finds her. Lucy goes back through the wardrobe where only a moment has passed in the professor’s house, though she had been gone for hours. No one believes her story.

Edmund goes to Narnia with her and meets the witch (Tilda Swinton), who promises him treats and a throne, but when he comes back, he says she made it all up. Soon all four children are in Narnia. While Peter, Susan, and Lucy join with Aslan the lion and those who want to melt the hundred-years winter and bring freedom back to Narnia, Edmund’s vanity and loneliness cause him to side with the witch. Dire battles lie ahead — a battle of armies and a battle of the spirit.


The design and effects are stunning, with completely believeable centaurs, fauns, cyclops, wolves, and foxes. Narnia feels truly magical.

The performances of the four leads, especially Henley’s Lucy, are unaffected and sincere. Swinton’s flat face and almost-invisible brows and lashes float above stiff, even sculptural gowns and there is never a hint of a wink or a holding back because this is a kids’ story. She brings the absolute focus and conviction to the part of the witch she might bring to a performance as Lady Macbeth and it is shiveringly evil. Liam Neeson provides the voice of Aslan, the wise and generous leader of the rebellion, and Ray Winstone and Dawn French are the endearing beavers. The script, co-written by director Andrew Adamson — hmmm, son of Adam — (Shrek) is wise and genuinely witty. It delicately but thoughtfully manages to achieve a balance between fairy tale and religious allegory so that audiences in search of either will find what they are looking for and be satisfied. And that is a very deep magic indeed.

Parents should know that this movie has very intense and explicit battle violence for a PG movie, close to the edge of a PG-13. Characters are injured and (apparently) killed. Children are in peril and one is smacked, imprisoned, and treated cruelly. Parents of younger children and those not familiar with the story will want to make sure that children who see the movie know what to expect. We first see the children hiding as London is attacked by bombs during WWII, and then they are sent away by their mother to live with someone they do not know. Some children may need some historical context (and some reassurance) to understand this part of the story.


Families who see this movie should talk about the tradition of “enchanted place” stories and why they are so enduringly popular. How is this story like — and not like — other stories about children who wander into magic lands? One reason this story has been popular for so many years is that it works on many levels. Some families will want to discuss the Christian symbolism in the story, which was written by a distinguished theologian. Others will want to focus on other themes, like trust, loyalty, and courage. What was Edmund so ready to believe what the Queen said? Why did he try to make a joke out of everything? What did Aslan mean by understanding sacrifice? Why was Aslan so willing to forgive Edmund? If you could create a magic land, what would it be like?


Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the books and the BBC miniseries. They will also enjoy other “enchanted places” stories in books and movies, from classics like Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, and The Wizard of Oz to newcomers like Time Bandits, the books of Edward Eager and E. Nesbitt, and the His Dark Materials trilogy. Older viewers who would like to know something more about the author of these books will enjoy Shadowlands (or the equally good British version), about the very unexpected (especially by Lewis) love of Lewis’s life, Joy Gresham (whose son Douglas was co-producer of this film, and who provides the voice of the radio announcer at the beginning).

Aeon Flux

posted by jmiller
B-
Lowest Recommended Age:Middle School
MPAA Rating:Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and sexual content.
Movie Release Date:2005
DVD Release Date:2006

Maybe it’s just that my expectations were so low because it was not screened for critics (meaning the studios did not think they would get even one good review), but “Aeon Flux” was not so bad. A little boring, yes, especially in the middle section, a little silly and pretentious, yes, we could have done with a little Serenity-style attitude (and especially some Serenity-style dialogue). But we’ve got repressive bad guys and rebel forces, guns, explosions, stunts, some very cool special effects, and Charlize Theron in a skin-tight black outfit low in the front and laced up down the back. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours at the movies. So when it comes to atrocious Oscar-winners-turned-iconic-action-heroines movies go, Catwoman is still the clear winner.


Aoen (pronounced EE-on) Flux (Theron) lives in a small, walled-in community 400 years in the future. They are the only humans on earth following a devastating virus that wiped out 99 percent of the population. A doctor named Goodchild discovered a cure for the virus and his desendents still control the community. On its surface, it seems idyllic, but the Goodchild regime is oppresive. There are secrets, including the whereabouts of people who just disappear.


Flux says “I had a family once. I had a life. Now all I have is a mission.” Her family has been killed, and she has devoted herself to the rebel forces, which communicate via pills that sort of psychically transport them to a glowing white chamber where they appear before their leader (Frances McDormand with red hair that looks like she stuck her finger in a light socket).


Aeon and her hand-footed (yes, she has hands for feet) pal Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo of Hotel Rwanda and Dirty Pretty Things) are ordered to assassinate Goodchild. This involves infiltrating a compound surrounded by some lethal vegetation — something that looks like a melon crossed with a machine gun and some grass that takes the term “blades” very literally.


But when Aeon sees Goodchild, she hesitates. He seems to know her. She seems to know him. And he seems not to be the bad guy she thought.


It turns out that both Aeon and Goodchild have more to fear from their friends than their enemies. It also turns out that this perfect on the outside-fascist on the inside society has some secrets to reveal.

On the road to all of these discoveries are some showy stunts and action sequences involving swoopy summersaults and slo-mo running. This is one of those perfect on the outside-fascist on the inside societies where everything happens in huge, cavernous spaces for no particular reason except that it’s a cool setting. They don’t seem to have phones; when they aren’t communicating via telepathic pills, they use a sort of directory assistance that’s a computer voice accessed while standing in a huge empty room the size of a cathedral.

All of this sounds like fun to watch, and it is. But there are three significant problems that keep it from working. First, it never finds the right tone. It takes itself too seriously to be fun but does not have enough complexity to be meaningful. It needs wit and attitude badly. This takes us to problem number two: cardboard dialogue of the “Let’s be careful. You know what we’re up against” genre. It does no good to create a visually arresting scene (even with a very visually arresting leading lady) if you’re going to weigh it all down with talk like that. All of this means that there’s a long dull stretch through the middle — problem number three. It’s not a bad time-waster, especially for fans of the genre, and Theron’s lithe dancer’s body and hurt-but-determined expression and some well-staged stunts are quite watchable, but — trying to avoid a spoiler here, so stop reading if you want to be surprised — ultimately it suffers from the same lack of originality as its characters.

Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of comic book-style action violence including guns and explosions. Characters are shot, punched, stabbed, kicked, and impaled and some are injured and killed. There are some graphic injuries and a couple of gross moments. There is a non-explicit sexual encounter. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of diverse characters, including very strong women.

Families who see this movie should talk about the ethical concerns involved in the choices made by Goodchild and his brother. What do the names tell you about the characters?


Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the Aeon Flux animated series as well as the Matrix series, and other dystopic future sagas from Soylent Green to Blade Runner.

First Descent

posted by jmiller
B
Lowest Recommended Age:Middle School
MPAA Rating:Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and a momentary drug reference.
Movie Release Date:2005
DVD Release Date:2006

When the helicopter takes you to the snowy peaks at the end of the paved road, where “backcountry” describes a style and a philosophy as oppose to a location, you know you are about to see something beautiful. As if snowboarding was not amazing enough in its gravity-defying freestyle and its seemingly-unstoppable downhill speed, this movie takes you to “first descent” snow, untouched and dangerous, to watch the experts glide down avalanches, rock faces and that dauntingly large jump to show the sport off against a vast, wild playground.


It doesn’t matter a bit that “First Descent” follows a well-established formula for sport movie/documentaries. There are the requisite clips from the sport’s beginnings; the gorgeous scenery of snowy peaks; the focus on a handful of the sport’s defining athletes, past and present; and, of course, the representative soundtrack. What matters here is that it welcomes you into the sport like a friend and introduces you to the joy of finding that great “line”. For those who get sweaty palms and nervous stomachs at watching someone stand atop a cliff face, this extreme snowboarding, ranging from free-style to backcountry, will leave them hugging the floor.


The movie is part documentary — describing snowboarding’s roots and its rapid ascension to the fast-growing, mainstream phenomenon it is today — and part field trip, focusing on six athletes who are taken to Alaska for back-country snowboarding. The six are: Shawn Farmer, who was one of the sport’s wild poster boys; Terje Haakonsen, whose no-nonsense style and fearless approach have made him legendary far beyond his native Norway; Nick Peralta, another who helped define the sport; Travis Rice, whose experience in Japan demonstrates a whole new way of looking at snowboarding; Hannah Teter, a game and gifted young Olympian; and, the 18-year-old surprisingly humble superstar, Shaun White, five-time X Games winner. They range in age from 40 to 17 and one of the movie’s strengths is demonstrating how they all learn from one another as they swoosh down the mountainsides.


The choppy cuts back and forth between Alaska, past clips and footage of competitions are at times a bit clumsy and the back-stories for the six are incomplete snapshots (where’s Peralta’s montage?), however these are small bumps on the slope of an otherwise successful movie. It is doubtful that true fans will learn much that they do not already know or that audience goers will remember anything particular once they leave, but the images of snowboarders weaving down vast snow plains or spinning far above the ground make even the least snow-minded understand the businessman who took up the sport at age 60 and whose eyes sparkle as he admits to being a “complete addict”.


Parents should know that this movie is about a sport that can be quite dangerous. These athletes suffer injuries, wipeouts and other bad falls while the potential for a fatal accident is present in many scenes. Anyone who has a fear of heights should avoid the movie unless they are trying to desensitize themselves. In looking at the history of snowboarding, the movie includes some footage of off-the-slope behavior of the “Jackass” variety, including people breaking bottles over their own heads, jumping from high surfaces onto concrete and other extreme stunts. There are scenes of drinking, drunken behavior, and references to drug use. A recap of the Nagano Olympics, when a snowboarder tested positive for marijuana use, is retold with approval. Youth rebellion through new or dangerous sports is a theme of this movie.


Families might talk about the different subcultures within snowboarding and how they defined themselves as well as how those definitions changed with the sport’s increased popularity. They might also discuss the professionalizing and commercialization of sports in general and the impact those changes have, not just on demographics, but on defining a sport. For example, NASCAR, briefly touched on in “First Descent”, had its roots in prohibition-era liquor smuggling: can you see its links to its past?


Families that enjoy this movie might be interested in other extremely photogenic sport films and documentaries. The prolific Warren Miller has made over 40 movies about downhill skiing filled with scenes of graceful skiers leaping and slaloming down beautiful slopes.


The skateboarding culture touched on in “First Descent” is delved into in Dogtown and Z-Boys. While those who like their adventures at sea level might enjoy the surfing classic The Endless Summer as well as more recent surfing movies such as Step into Liquid and Riding Giants.


The majesty of the Alaskan mountains is also the backdrop for the jaw-dropping film diary about Dick Proenneke who heads to the mountains to test himself in a much less athletic but even more impressive way. The film comprises footage that the self-reliant 50-year-old made as he builds himself a cabin and readies himself for winter over the course of 1967, the first of 30 plus years he ends up staying Alone in the Wilderness.

Thanks to guest critic AME.

Syriana

posted by jmiller
B+
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating:Rated R for violence and language.
Movie Release Date:2005
DVD Release Date:2006

Most movies tell us everything and then they tell it to us again, just to make sure. Some movies, like this one, tell us too little, making us work at it, making us lean forward in our seats, fill in the blanks ourselves and then talk to each other about it on the way home. Like Traffic, with the same writer and director, this is a multi-layered and complex examination of a multi-layered and complex global problem.

If you want a movie that answers all your questions, try “Revenge of the Sith.” If you want a movie that questions all your answers, try this one.


One question it never answers is the meaning of the title. Syriana, according to the film’s website, is a fictional name used by Washington think-tanks to envision a hypothetical (and presumably optimal) reshaping of the Middle East.

The film is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle without a picture of the completed version to guide you and some of the crucial pieces missing. There are little glimpses of many different stories and variations on the theme of oil and of its exploitation and costs — political, commercial, environmental, and international security.


One central character is a CIA operative named Robert Barnes (George Clooney), wise but tired and his bureacratic bosses back in Langley, Virgnia, trying to maintain their viability and deniability. There is an American financial analyst named Bryan (Matt Damon), who lives in Geneva with his wife and two sons, a family so idyllically loving that you know they are in for tragedy. There are two Arab princes competing with each other to be selected by their father to succeed him as monarch, a contest vitally important to the corporate interests, especially two American oil companies trying to get government approval for a merger. It is also of vital importance to national security, and what is best for America may not be best for the citizens of the monarchy or for the immigrants who work for the oil companies there. There is also the Washington triangle of politicians, corporations, and the people paid by the corporations to influence the politicians.


It can be tough to watch, not just because it makes you work hard to understand what is happening in the movie, but because it makes you work hard to understand what is happening in the world. A businessman argues for the indispensability of corruption. Many people pay terrible prices to get what they want, sacrificing partners, family members, and themselves. They may not ask themselves if what they want is worth it, but we must.


The writing and performances are superb, especially Clooney (looking two decades older with an extra 30 pounds), Jeffrey Wright as a Washington lawyer, and Alexander Siddig as a prince. It keeps you off-balance and unsettled and yet settles itself over you with a sickening inevitablity. A story like this needs to be told in a way that will keep you wondering as you drive home — especially if you stop to fill the gas tank along the way.

Parents should know that this is a very intense movie with graphic peril and violence, including torture, suicide, terrorisim, and assassination. Characters are injured and killed. Characters drink, smoke, and use strong language.


Families who see this movie should talk about who is in the best position to address the problems of corruption and abuse in the oil business, and what they themselves can do. They can find more information at sites maintained by the National Commission on Energy Policy, the Department of Energy, and the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. And those who want some questions about the plot answered can check the discussion at Wikipedia and add their own comments.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Traffic and the miniseries that inspired it, Traffik.

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