August movie reviews: a guide for parents

Kubo and the Two Strings received a 9/10 by our reviewer.
Kubo and the Two Strings received a 9/10 by our reviewer.  Photo: LAIKA / Focus Features

BEN-HUR (M)
Released: August 25

Story: Hollywood-made Biblical action drama. In 33AD, Jerusalem prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) loses his family and home when he clashes with a Roman legion led by his foster brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Judah has one chance to reclaim his life: in a chariot race. Co-produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (The Bible mini-series).

  • Language: No swear words although 'okay' seems out of place in Ancient Roman times.
  • Romance: Kisses.
  • Violence: Frequent battles, deaths. Leprosy themes.
  • Ages: 3 – 6: Despite the soothing appearances of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro, the most charismatic person here), this Bible lesson is too violent.
  • 7 – 12: If the mangled story-telling doesn't bore them, the 90 minute wait for a ten minute chariot race will.
  • 13-plus: Most teens have seen enough action movies to give a thumbs down to unoriginal Roman arena showdowns. Hard-working leads Huston and Kebbell lack star power which is a big problem for what is ultimately a bro-mance. This two hour film should have been cut by thirty minutes.
  • Adult Compatibility: Fans of the 1959 Charlton Heston version should skip it. Biggest crime: despite several striking action sequences from cinematographer Oliver Wood (who shot the first three Bourne movies), this makes its tumultuous story skull-numbingly boring. Christian viewers will get the best (drama) rewards.
  • Critic's rating: 3/10

FREE STATE OF JONES (MA)
Released: August 25

Story: Based-on-fact American Civil War drama. In 1862, sick of front line carnage, Southern soldier Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) returns home. But life in Jones County, Mississippi, is just as brutal: tax collectors are stripping local farmers of their money and food. Now an outlaw, Newton retreats into nearby swamps and discovers a camp of runaway slaves. Teaming up with Moses (Mahershala Ali), he begins a resistance movement which involves the whole state.

  • Language: Five swear words.
  • Romance: Discreet adult themes.
  • Violence: Blows, battle scenes (with close-ups of wounded men), home surgery, deaths. Children using guns.
  • Ages: 3 – 6: No.
  • 7 – 12: We don't think so despite the obvious care taken with most violent scenes involving women and African Americans.
  • 13-plus: Older teens should enjoy this rousing, American Robin Hood tale; the use of real Civil War photos throughout also adds impact. McConaughey is terrific again, continuing his recent run of impressive drama performances (from Dallas Buyers Club to television's True Detective). It's a pity the film is about twenty minutes too long, overburdened with cutaways to a 1950s courtroom trial and one too many speeches.
  • Adult Compatibility: Not as smoothly involving as it should be, despite its high production quality and the historical detail. Still worth catching, if not in cinema then on DVD.
  • Critic's rating: 6/10

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (PG)
Released: August 18

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Story: Animated English language feature. After losing his eye in a family tragedy, young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) supports his ailing mother by telling exciting stories in the marketplace. But when malevolent spirits threaten Kubo, he is helped by a sarcastic monkey (Charlize Theron) and a goofy warrior beetle (Matthew McConaughey). From the makers of Coraline and The Boxtrolls.

  • Language: None, thankfully.
  • Romance: Romance references.
  • Violence: Sword fights, creature attacks; death themes, threats.
  • Ages: 3 – 6:  Beautifully executed stop-motion animated adventure still has too many threats to young Kubo, and will overwhelm this group.
  • 7 – 12: Perfect audience. While there is no age-appropriate female character for girl viewers, everyone will cheer the intrepid boy-hero (Parkinson plays Rickon Stark on Game Of Thrones). Parents will appreciate a film which doesn't bludgeon kids with violence but paces its action. Clever storytelling uses Ancient Japan settings to appeal to kids' imagination.
  • 13-plus: Not too young for them, thanks to a top cast which includes Harry Potter series baddie Ralph Fiennes as the evil Moon King, and McConaughey (sounding very like George Clooney) as the funny warrior.
  • Adult Compatibility: The animation is exquisite in 2D (you don't need 3D). The ending feels rushed.
  • Critic's rating: 9/10

THE SHALLOWS (M)
Released: August 18

Story: Hollywood horror thriller. After travelling to recover from a family loss, American medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) finds herself on a secluded Mexican beach. But when she enters the feeding ground of an enormous great white shark, Nancy is stranded off-shore while anyone who tries to help her is attacked. Directed by Jaume Collett-Serra who made the Liam Neeson action dramas Unknown; Non-Stop and Run All Night.  

  • Language: Three swear words.
  • Romance: None.
  • Violence: Shark attacks, severe injuries, home surgery, deaths.
  • Ages: 3 – 6: Swim a mile from this (it isn't Finding Dory).
  • 7 – 12: Too gory for them, thanks to excruciatingly real special effects (a far cry from Jaws' puppet images). The slow set-up may lose them.
  • 13-plus: Ideal for teen viewers. There are logic holes (Nancy doesn't seem as dehydrated as she should) but once the action starts, the tension never lets up, thanks to superb photography and slow reveal of the monster itself. Lively is a likable and believably athletic heroine. The film does flatten toward the end but the result is still thoroughly entertaining.
  • Adult Compatibility: Even the adults at one public preview were gasping and talking to the screen. The Australian settings (this was shot on Lord Howe Island) will please locals.
  • Critic's rating: 7/10

ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: THE MOVIE (M)
Released: August 4

Story: Movie spin-off from the British television show. Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley) must flee the country when Eddie accidentally pushes model Kate Moss into the river. Naturally, Eddie's family – mum (June Whitfield), daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) and grand-daughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holdness) – become embroiled in the scandal, as do friends and foes from the fashion world.

  • Language: More than thirty swear words.
  • Romance: Kisses, adult themes, sexual references.
  • Violence: Gratuitous smoking and drinking. Drug references. Patsy is tasered by an irate flight attendant (Rebel Wilson).
  • Ages: 3 – 6: Absolutely not, sweetie.
  • 7 – 12: Too much chat for them.
  • 13-plus:  Young Lola is a nice addition but only older teen fashionistas will be interested in this colourful, fast-paced satire. They'll enjoy the TV show's regulars (such as Jane Horrocks' Bubble and Kathy Burke's foul-mouthed editor Magda) and star cameos from Jon Hamm, Emma 'Baby Spice' Bunton and Moss herself.
  • Adult Compatibility: Like the recent Star Trek: Beyond, this spin-off plays like an extended television episode. That will please fans even if the 91 minute story doesn't really fill the big screen; you'll want another half hour. Saunders seems oddly quieter here; it is Lumley who lights up the screen, followed by a typically scene-stealing cameo from Australian comedian Wilson. Luckily, enough jokes make this worth seeing by anyone in need of a chuckle.
  • Critic's rating: 6/10

BARBIE: DREAMTOPIA (G)
Released: August 6 (Limited run scheduled)

Story: Animated adventure fantasy featuring the children's doll. Barbie's little sister Chelsea is worried about riding her bike at the upcoming Fun Day. But when Barbie encourages her to use her imagination, Chelsea dreams about fantastic places such as Sweetville, which has hot-chocolate rivers and lemon lime grass. As she searches for a winged unicorn, Chelsea also meets princesses and fairies.

  • Language: Nothing at all.
  • Romance: None.
  • Violence:  Grumpy neighbour Otto tries to make Chelsea doubt herself.
  • Ages: 3 – 6: Older girls are the target audience for this upbeat, rainbow-coloured adventure. Parents might roll their eyes at the rampant consumption – lollies, bikes, hair styles – and the (unsurprisingly) doll look to the characters. However, lollies and cute puppies are designed to appeal to the kids. This scores high on the Bechdel Test: both sisters talk to their friends. The result is a non-threatening introduction to big screen movie-going for your under-sixes.
  • 7 – 12: Younger girls will be entertained but the 46 minute running time is too short for anyone older.
  • 13-plus: Too young for them.
  • Adult Compatibility: Undemanding entertainment gives parents time to ponder why older female movie characters are less likely to be shown having friends or discussing hopes and dreams, rather than boys.
  • Critic's rating: 7/10  
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DOWN UNDER (MA)
Released: August 11

Story: Australian black comedy. The day after the Cronulla riots, two opposing groups set out for revenge. Lebanese-Australian student Hassim (Lincoln Younes) reluctantly joins a carload of friends after his brother goes missing while Anglo- Australian Jason (Damon Herriman) organises his own group of vigilantes. As the hours pass, the two groups head for a confrontation.

  • Language: Ferocious and frequent from the opening moments, including jaw-dropping news footage of the real Cronulla riots.
  • Romance: Adult themes, sexual references. Gratuitous smoking. Drug references.
  • Violence: Blows, gun-shots, car chase, threats, fights, deaths.
  • Ages: 3 – 6: Don't even think about it.
  • 7 – 12: Ditto.
  • 13-plus: The violence and language make it suitable only for older teens. Still, this manages to be both hilarious and nail-bitingly suspenseful; you'll be horrified even as you laugh. Performances throughout are terrific; lead actor Younes has natural star power. A couple of speeches stray into lecturing territory; the few stereotyped female characters demonstrate little interest in exploring race relations from a female point of view. But the film nails ridiculous, hypocritical behaviour on both sides. Ned writer-director Abe Forsyth delivers a surprisingly good-looking picture, helped by expert cinematography.
  • Adult Compatibility: Worth seeing for all the above reasons.
  • Critics' rating: 8/10

EMBRACE (MA)
Released: August 4 (selected locations)

Story: Australian documentary follows the world-wide reaction when Australian woman Taryn Brumfitt posted a realistic (that is, not touched-up or digitally tweaked) photo of her body. As a result, Brumfitt travelled the world interviewing women (including models and celebrities like Ricki Lake) about their bodies, in a truly disturbing examination of what appears to be an epidemic of female body-loathing.

  • Language: Six swear words.
  • Romance: Full frontal nudity; birth images.
  • Violence: Adult themes; abusive emails.
  • Ages: 3 – 6: Over their heads.
  • 7 – 12: Ditto.
  • 13-plus: While the topic is extremely relevant to them, an approach which includes not only undressed bodies but also interviews with a girl critically ill with anorexia may be too confronting for younger teens. Older teens should be fascinated by such honest interviews from (among others) a burns victim and a bearded girl.  The film's tough edge comes courtesy of vicious social media trolling against Brumfitt's  'before' and 'after' photos; sleazy plastic surgeons; pro-anorexia websites, and horrifying stories of models eating cotton wool to stay thin.
  • Adult Compatibility:  A simple and empowering idea, entertainingly executed.  The globe-trotting approach adds big screen glamour. Most female viewers would be happy to see a television series on the subject, which might also examine body-shaming of male celebrities.  
  • Critic's rating: 8/10  

SUICIDE SQUAD (M)
Released: August 4

Story: Live action adventure based on the DC Comics books. When America is threatened, a ruthless official (Viola Davis) conscripts an all-villains squad. But can squad leader Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) control his recruits: assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), former psychiatrist turned psychopath Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the blazing Diablo (Jay Hernandez), punch-happy Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and reptilian Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)?

  • Language: Frequent.
  • Romance: Kisses.
  • Violence: Constant shootings, deaths, blows, threats, explosions, crashes. Harley is electrocuted three times; women are also punched in the face.
  • Ages: 3 – 6: Don't even think about it.
  • 7 – 12: Repetitive, illogical, unjustified violence? We think not.
  • 13-plus: Smith and Robbie steal the show with well-delivered jokes and real emotion. The rest is badly paced and confused clutter, not helped by a bitsy soundtrack. The violence against the female characters (see above) includes expecting audiences to endorse a character who murdered his wife and children. Miscast Cara Delevingne was always doomed as a witch in a harem costume.  The Joker (an energetic Jared Leto) mostly laughs maniacally.
  • Adult Compatibility: Review embargo until the day before release? Never a good sign. Despite the hefty two hour length, nothing original happens action-wise. Do NOT see this in 3D: some scenes were barely decipherable in 2D.
  • Critic's rating: 3/10