INSTANT FAMILY – A TALE OF THE TRUE SUPER HEROES

SHORT TAKE:

Instant Family is the charming, inspirational and humorous story of a DINK (double income no kids) couple who decide to foster three children. The film manages to be smart, brutally honest, funny and even whimsical all at the same time.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Must see! BUT only for older teens and up for language and story content.

AND IF YOU LIKE THESE REVIEWS PLEASE SUBSCRIBE! THEN YOU'LL GET     EVERY NEW REVIEW SENT STRAIGHT TO YOUR E-MAIL!!

GO TO THE BOTTOM OF THE LEFT HAND SIDE AND TYPE YOUR E-MAIL IN – IT (SHOULD BE) THAT EASY. ANY PROBLEMS PLEASE SEND ME A COMMENT AND I'LL DO MY BEST TO RESOLVE YOUR ISSUE.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!!

Instant Family COULD have been called Foster Parenting for Dummies. This is no one's idealized version of a blended family. This is not The Brady Bunch, Three Men and a Baby, Despiccable Me or even……… The Blind Side (and you'll see why that's funny when you see the movie). But the movie is honest and very funny, miraculously achieving that delicate balance between comedy and drama which many movies attempt but at which few succeed. The innate parity between laughter and tears, which exists in the human condition but is rarely found in movie scripts, comes naturally to this script because the story was inspired by writer/director Sean Anders and his wife's real life experiences of adopting. All of the characters, from the kids to the support group members to the social workers, are based on the real people Anders met through the process – normally flawed humans with the usual awkward family dynamics trying to do their best under difficult circumstances..

Instant Family soft pedals nothing as it follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg – Mile 22, Deep Water Horizon and Lone Survivor), and Ellie (Rose Byrne – Moira from the X-Men reboot and Bea from Peter Rabbit, and who, though from Australia, does a spotless American accent) from their naive, romantic visions of fostering a child, through the often hilarious mandatory support group meetings, the spotty support of their doubtful relatives, through the decision making and then to the realities of trying to support, protect, guide and raise three at-risk and traumatised children of different ages.

Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but it is also laugh-out-loud funny.

The movie occasionally wanders gently into slapstick and slight caricature but only in a way one might, with the humor and affection gleaned from the wisdom of retrospection, remember an experience that did not seem funny at the time but ends up being one of your favorite memories. Instant Family reminds me a lot of last year's equally brilliant Wonder, about a family coping with a severely handicapped child. There are no bad guys, only the challenge, tackled by adults and children alike, to interact with the people who love you as best you can.

And if you ever wondered, as the PSA querries, that you had to be perfect to foster a child, the characters in Instant Family will disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly.

The support group scenes are especially funny, populated, as they are, by every possible combination of would be foster parents, from: single wanna-be super mom, to idealistic fundamentalist Christians, to an infertile interracial couple, to a gay couple, and to our protagonists – an upwardly mobile self employed couple, who initially think of these children the way they do the houses they renovate for a living. All come with a unique set of priorities and preconceived, often conflicting, sometimes counter-intuitive notions. Some are even portrayed as ridiculous or annoying. But, fundamentally, ALL of them have one thing in common: A core desire to provide a loving stable home for children who have none, and who are often at risk of abuse, addiction and even death at the hands of their biological parents and the environment to which they are subjected.

These foster parents, for all of their differences, flaws, quirks, and even errors in judgment, are the living life rafts on the treacherous and stormy seas of our broken culture, desperately trying to rescue survivors who sometimes don't even want to be saved. I love movies about: The Avengers, Thor, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Ant Man, Batman, Justice League and Agents of SHIELD. But these disparate, sometimes awkward, occasionally clueless foster parents are the true super heroes.

The acting is terrific, never succumbing to the easy temptation to sink into saccharine or false empathy, but neither does it avoid showing the warts of the torturous foster process.

Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent and never shy away from any of the very strong emotions of the moment, but don't dwell on them either. And there is a constant balance of the solemn with the naturally evolving moments of humor that always arise from even the grimmest of circumstances. For example, the social workers, Sharon and Karen, played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and Zootopia) are very funny as odd couple co-workers. Notaro is the prim, proper, white, reserved, rule follower while Spencer is the outspoken, blunt, pragmatic, black counterpart. But they both have a realistic view of their jobs. When Pete asks Sharon and Karen about the foster children's father the only answer he gets is uncontrolled laughter. This humorously speaks serious volumes without belaboring the tragic point. In another scene, after learning of a significant hitch in their plans, Pete and Ellie come home to discover Ellie's mother, Jan, being decorated with permanent ink sharpies. There was no malice involved. Children and Jan alike had mistaken them for washables. Jan, performed by Julie Hagerty, whose unforgettable stint in Airplane made her synonymnous with ditzy characters, solemnly offers good and sage advice but, of necessity, while indelibly and distractingly face painted.

The music is a cheerful and delightful sprinkling of songs like Wings' "Let 'em In," George Harrison's "What is Life," and Jefferson Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop us Now". The perky upbeats also help soften the more somber moments. You can get the individual songs streaming on Amazon here.

The children are very natural. Isabela Moner, singer and actress, is Lizzy, the teenager who is simultaneously grateful for the safe haven Pete and Ellie provide for herself and her siblings and understandably resentful of these same people as interlopers to her "real," incarcerated, drug-addicted mother. Moner has a truly beautiful voice and sings the credit song, "I'll Stay," at the end of the movie. Gustavo Quiroz is adorable as Lizzy's clutzy, well meaning and inept younger brother, Juan. And Julianna Gamiz is the youngest and precocious sister, Lita.

The two younger kids act with the normal and very believable open ingenuousness, quick impulsive affection, manipulative behavior, and selfish temper tantrum demands of normal kids. But the writing skillfully runs a thread of abnormality underneath these kids' otherwise normal veneer. For example, Lita happily plays with Ellie when they first meet until Lita begins play-acting with her doll, calling her doll racial epithets and interacting with the doll  in ways she is obviously imitating from her previous foster parents. It's nothing sinister but casually cruel. And it gives the audience a taste of what every precarious day can be like for these kids whose parents have abysmally let them down  and are in a system which can sometimes fail them. But again the serious tone is undercut by the humorous way the failed foster couple insist she must have heard it on TV.

A lovely cameo is of Joan Cusack as an elderly, awkward, but concerned neighbor who helps to deflate another scene which could have degenerated into mawkishness but for her delightfully eccentric presence.

The filming style itself is very straightforward, almost like professionally made home movies, as we see quite intimate moments of Ellie and Pete with each other, with their families, and with the foster kids, and the support group sessions.

While there is no sexuality shown on screen, there are sexual topics which come up necessarily and inevitably with the raising of a 15 year old girl from a bleakly broken background who has severe daddy issues. In addition, under stress, there is some humorously interjected but understandable profanity that crops up sprinkled throughout the movie. This, with the serious topic of abandoned and at-risk children, make this movie suitable only for older teens and up. However for that demographic for which is appropriate it is a must-see movie.

 

 

ISLE OF DOGS – A WES ANDERSON TAKE ON MAN’S BEST FRIEND

SHORT TAKE:

Peculiar stop-action animated dramedy about abandoned dogs and their nobility in a dystopian Japanese future and the boy who adventures out to rescue one of them.

WHO SHOULD GO:

The violence is, literally and figuratively, cartoonish, but unlike most cartoons, there are realistic outcomes: bitten off ear, bones of a starved dog, ripped eyes, missing fur – so mid-teens a minimum, and only then with parental discretion. As always, when in doubt, PARENTS YOU SEE IT FIRST before taking your kids.

Remember, they can not UNsee something.

LONG TAKE:

Isle of Dogs is a straight up tale of a boy searching for his lost pet.

But that is where the possibility of it being a kid movie ends. Isle of Dogs is really an animated stop action film for adults that most older kids could probably go see too. The premise of this very odd animated movie involves dog-hating corrupt politicians in a Japan 20 years into the future. (Not, according to Wes Anderson, necessarily OUR future or Japan's future but SOME future in the…future. Don't blame me, that is what Wes Anderson said.)

Acting on a thousand year old feud between dogs and cats, the evil Mayor of Megasaki gets his henchmen to devise and deliberately introduce a lethal snout flu into the dog population, making dogs both sick and more aggressive. To "protect" the population, all dogs from the fictitious Japanese town, (which name seems to stand for LOTS – mega – of very strong rice wine – saki), are sent to Trash Island, aptly named for the location to where all of the pollution, litter, industrial waste, radioactive discards, plastic bottles,

rusted car parts, broken glass and every day garbage are dumped from Megasaki.

The animation is almost entirely stop motion puppets, and the "making of" Isle of Dogs videos are fascinating. Each portion of this strange film is stylized:

a cave made of discarded soda containers, a mountain of black sand,

an island of tires. Anderson primarily uses bright colors in the peopled Magasaki and muted colors on Trash Island, not only to highlight and represent the desolation of Trash Island but to realistically reflect the fact that dogs are partially color blind and Anderson wanted the view of the place to be from the dog’s POV.

I wondered what would inspire Wes Anderson, the director of such disparate but equally quirky films as: the

Royal Tenenbaums,

The Grand Budapest Hotel,

The Fantastic Mr. Fox and

Moonrise Kingdom, (yes, Anderson likes that signature over-the-shoulder shot, doesn't he?), to make this rather odd film. It turns out after some research that the primary reasons are an amalgam of four disparate thoughts: a London street sign, a misunderstanding about him personally, a familiar trope, and 1960s Japanese directors.

It began apparently when Mr. Anderson was driving through London during the filming of The Fantastic Mr. Fox and saw a street sign "Isle of Dogs". Yes, it is a real place –

a suburban area built into a loop of the Thames. The name stuck with him. Further it's a bit of a play on words. Say it fast and it becomes "I love dogs". Which leads to the misunderstanding about him personally.

In Wes Anderson films, bad things often happen to dogs. This goes a long way to explaining why I'm not a big fan. See in my Sgt Stubby review where I talk about Lethal Weapon 2. This particular repeating motiff has led to the misunderstanding that he does not like dogs. However, according to Mr. Anderson, this is very much not true. So he has written a movie about a group of abused examples of these endearing creatures – which leads to the next reason I have uncovered.

Mr. Anderson likes to include the concept, in all of his movies, of the endearing Underdog.

The character up against seemingly overwhelming odds who surely cannot win but for whom everyone roots and who often overcomes the odds.

Mr. Anderson, in a conceptual pun, has written a screenplay about the ultimate Underdog – the downtrodden, less fortunate dog, who has become the under dog.

The abandon group of men's best friends, who are condemned to die alone on a trash island, who face seemingly insurmountable odds, but whom are very likeable and for whom we root are the very definition of the Underdog.

The ultimate underdogs.

Finally, Mr. Anderson simply is a fan of two Japanese directors.

Akira Kurosawa was the director of movies such as Ran, the Japanese version of King Lear, Rashomon, the brilliant classic film about an attack in a forest told consecutively from four points of view, and Kagemusha, (which translates to "political decoy") about a thief who is hired to be the body double of a king. For you Star Wars trivia buffs, just "so's ya' know," Kagemusha

was made possible through the influence and financial intervention of George Lucas. Lucas attributed inspiration for his breakthrough epic Star Wars from Kurasawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress. Shocked at finding out that Kurasawa could not get funding or attention to get Kagemusha filmed, Lucas pulled his now very thick and powerful strings – purse and studio – to get Kurasawa the backing he needed and the movie was a massive financial and critical hit.

Wes Anderson admits to being a big fan and was highly influenced in his use of style by Kurasawa as well.

The other Japanese director is

Hayao Miyazaki, an acclaimed manga animator of

Princess Mononoke, which Anderson says he admires for his use of nature and silence.

Therefore, Anderson set the location and the architectural styles of Japan

with a Frank Lloyd Wright flair.

The movie is not without humor. It is actually quiet funny in moments

with a dry wit often worthy of Steven Wright ("I woke up one morning to discover everything in my house had been replaced with an exact duplicate,") or George Carlin's "Hippy, Dippy Weatherman" routine, where he predicts that the nighttime would likely be "dark" with continued "dark" until the morning and that "the weather would continue to change for a long, long time."

Similarly, the dogs comment matter of factly on their tenuous, sometimes impossible, and seemingly hopeless situation with a jaunty optimistic naivety. Boss is voiced with

deadpan wryness by Bill Murray,

King with gentle common sense pragmatism by Bob Balaban,

Rex with a slight bit of snark by Ed Norton,

Duke as a gossipy worrywart by Jeff Goldblum, and Chief

with a straight man's frustration by Bryan Cranston. These dogs all have notably different personalities, despite the limited abilities of the puppets to express facially or look terribly individual.

Rounding out more of the cast are Scarlett Johansson's Nutmeg,

Leiv Schrieber's Spots,

Tilda Swinton as the TV interpreting Oracle,

Koyu Rankin as Atari, known to the dogs as the "Little Pilot"

for the daring way he arrived on Trash Island,

Greta Gerwig (the director of Ladybird, read about Ladybird in my Oscar Winners of 2018 review here) as

Tracy Walker, who takes up Atari's cause to the citizens of Megasaki, and

Frances McDormand who acts as narrator and occasionally Greek Chorus.

Incredible care and detail went into making each of the figures. For example, Andy Gent, working with 70 other artists, deliberately made the dogs' legs differently – they wanted to hit a "balance" between reality and "caricature," so to create that effect and for the convenience of the puppeteers, gave the dogs hind legs that look like front legs.

They brought in real dogs – sometimes pets from the cast and crew – and fashioned them according to certain actors they wanted to reflect, such as Charles Laughton's visage for Jupiter the St Bernard, voiced by F. Murray Abraham.

They also used

mechanical armature as a skeleton and crafted the fur from alpaca and merino wool.

There are virtues to be learned of: loyalty, redemption, fortitude and finding the purpose that God has given you. God IS mentioned in a positive way.

The dogs are at a loss until they are given the opportunity to once again serve humans and

humans have an obligation (defined Biblically as a stewardship) to care for, protect and respect the devotion lavished on us by dogs.

We are reminded often that dogs are supposed to be man's best friend and until that relationship is restored there is no real peace either in Megasaki or in the dog world.

While Isle of Dogs is aimed mostly at adults, despite its distinct peculiarities, this movie fits into that long honored list of films that remind us of the enduring relationship between humans and man's best friend.

TOMB RAIDER – HARMLESS BRAINLESS FUN

Daniel Wu

SHORT TAKE:

Discount Indiana Jones style adventure thriller with a female lead that takes advantage of the popularity of the video game of the same name.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to older teens and up but video game fans should be warned that while the spirit of the game is there, this is a mostly different plot.

LONG TAKE:

In the African fable of The Cow-Tail Switch a father, the leader of the tribe, is lost on a lion hunting trip. The youngest has not yet even been born when the father goes missing. Time goes by and eventually the youngest brother is born, toddles about, grows older and learns to speak. His very first words are, "Where is our father?" The six older brothers then realize their father has been gone a very long time and decide to go on a quest to find out what has happened. Many days travel away they eventually come upon the father’s bones. Each son has a magic gift of life. One puts the bones together. Another replaces the sinews and muscle. Another gives his father organs. Another flesh. Another fills his father’s body with blood. The sixth brother breathes life into him. They all return rejoicing and the father announces he will make the next ruler of the tribe the one who contributed the most to his return. Each of the six older sons makes an argument for the part they played in returning their father to life. But the father chooses the youngest, reasoning that he was the one who thought to ask about him – and as long as someone remembered him he was never really dead.

Such is the case of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.

SOME SPOILERS

The premise of Tomb Raider is that a young woman, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina) decides to embark upon a quest to find out what happened to her long lost adventurer father. During this quest she must overcome everything from Chinese muggers to shipwrecks and an evil nemesis Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, the perennial bad guy) who works for the mysterious Trinity, an organization seeking to control the world, who shoots the weak and offers up the predictable, "You should not have come," line. Based on the video game of the same name, fans of the game need to be aware that the Tomb Raider movie has virtually (pun intended) nothing in common with the video story except that the lead character is a female on an adventure on a mysterious island to find something. No mention of a missing father or a world catastrrophe she is tasked to stop is ever mentioned in the video game.

Missing for seven years, everyone else has given Richard Croft, (Dominic West with a diverse filmography from 300, the musical Chicago and 1999's A Midsummer's Night Dream) her father, up for dead. But so intent is Lara upon the idea that her father is still alive that she will not even lay claim to the inheritance which will get her off the streets and allow her to return to the life of luxury in which she grew up.

It is only when she is prevailed upon to meet with the family attorney that she is introduced to a wooden puzzle box which, according to the will, she is to solve upon her father’s death.

Solve it, of course, she does (or it would have been a very short movie) and off she is sent on an adventure that would have challenged Indiana Jones.

Until Gal Gadot put lie to my assertion that a really good super hero movie could not be made with a female lead, I did not think that a woman was as good a choice as a man for an action adventure……and aside from Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman I still think this is true.

Part of the problem is that the extremely physical stunts required of the character in Tomb Raider would have been a challenge for a circus gymnast with the power of Dwayne Johnson, much less a female bike courier who likes to kickbox for fun, which is what Lara is without her family dough. A video game character gets several lives, but the movie is more grounded in a real life scenario, and to have a female endure the abuse and survive the jumps, falls, hits, fighting and wounds she does and still have the energy to run with weapons into a battle, cartwheel through ancient booby traps and still have the strength to stand is beyond the limits of even my considerable powers of suspension of disbelief.

Another problem with this movie in particular is the plot. The very McGuffin is flimsy. The father spends much of his time away from his supposedly beloved daughter scouring the world in search of something that – well, truthfully he could have found in the nearest church.

It is never made clear exactly why Lara did not continue to live on the family estate even while her father was missing. Did she, at some point, decide – gosh, I think I’ll move away because if I CONTINUE to live here it will be like an admission of his death….? They never even explain why she left the home of her childhood to begin with. They show her there as a child and an older teen just before Richard leaves on his fateful last trip. When did she abandon the family manor so that returning would be an acceptance of his death? You have to LEAVE somewhere before you can RETURN. And if she left – why? And when? There is no logic, pretext, reason or excuse so much as alluded to. Doesn't make any logical sense.

Another McGuffin point is that the family executor, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, tells Lara if she does not sign papers acknowledging her father’s death that everything will be sold at auction. Um….why? It’s not as though they were going bankrupt. This seems like a very arbitrary threat which comes out of nowhere with no background explanation.

Lara is a newbie to the adventure scene. Indiana Jones' father took him to exotic locales since early childhood. Indiana grew up as an artifact hunter with a lot of experience fending for himself. Batman and Iron Man used LOTS of gizmos to get between their relatively fragile human bodies and the hostile punches, bullets, missiles and other assorted threatening challenges being thrown at them. Superman simply had … powers. Lara is a relative hothouse flower who…rides bikes fast and…kickboxes. Whoopie. This in no way demonstrates that she can survive: an ambush by three thugs, a shipwreck, a fall from a cliff, a landing through trees, picking up her own dead weight one handed – and these are only things you see in the trailer.

Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) is a significant and likeable supporting character who figures strongly in the plot yet is never given the clear resolution he deserves but is just kind of left…  hanging.

The main baddie Mathias Vogel  tells Lara he has killed her father but does not explain why he would murder the one man who, by his own admission, is the only way to find and open the tomb of Himika – the goal that will get him off the island. Then, let us say, in a surprise that takes no one unawares, that he is laughably bad at follow up.

Without giving away too much more than is already IN the trailer I find it difficult to determine who the real bad guy is – Mathias Vogel who only wants to "win" so he will be allowed to go home to his family, or Richard Croft, the titular good guy/Dad who, truth be told, abandoned his daughter to set off a search for an item that he should have predicted would get a lot of people killed, and all for some pretty lame reasons.

And I don't think it is much of a spoiler to reveal that this movie is primarily a great big set up for a sequel. But then so was Ron Eli's 1975 Doc Savage, and given you probably have never even HEARD of that movie you can see how well that turned out.

Not that Tomb Raider is a bad movie. It is certainly a mostly satisfying wild ride of a tale. But Lara Croft is no Wonder Woman. Nor is she Indiana Jones, Captain America, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Batman or even Zorro. OK Lara Croft is better than Doc Savage …. or Howard the Duck.

There is a surprise and very small role featuring one of my all time favorite actors, Derek Jacobi. Although the character provides almost nothing to the movie, Sir Derek would lend class and grace to a McDonald’s advertisement, so it was a joy to see him.

Movies like Tomb Raider are like the pleasure you get riding roller coasters or eating cotton candy – not harmful in moderation and a hoot if you don't think about it very hard.

In short Tomb Raider is a good old fashioned potboiler of a thrill ride with plenty of hair raising incidents, near misses, goofy but ignorable plot holes, preposterously unlikely survivals and…running. LOTS of running. So get your popcorn and malted milk balls, turn your brain WAY down to simmer and enjoy.

NOTE: There is NO nudity and NO sex as there is no time and virtually zero opportunity for the characters amidst all the chasing and shooting and RUNNING. There are a few profanities including one blasphemy which is spoken by the bad guy. The violence is on par with your average Indiana Jones movie.

But being a firm believer that people should check things out for themselves, especially when it comes to one's kids, who will VERY likely want to see this movie, I recommend you subscribe and check out: Tomb Raider on www.screenit.com http://www.screenitplus.com/members/tomb_raider_Full_Content_Review.cfm#p