September 2017 movie reviews: a guide for parents

Thomas & Friends: Journey beyond Sodor
Thomas & Friends: Journey beyond Sodor 

What's on at the big screen this month? See what movie reviewer, Rob Lowing says about these releases for kids, teens and young adults.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES (PG)

Released: September 28.

Story: American drama about the 1973 tennis match between champions Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). As publicity grows, personal problems intrude: compulsive gambler Riggs is given an ultimatum by his wife while married King finds herself unexpectedly attracted to a stranger (Andrea Riseborough). From the directors of Little Miss Sunshine.

Language: Nine swear words.

Romance: Adult themes, kisses, bedroom scene, brief nudity, brief sex scene.

Violence: Nothing overt but see the extraordinary behaviour of a TV sports commentator toward his female co-host.

Ages: 3 – 6: Over their heads.

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7 – 12: More personal drama than tennis action will bore them.

13-plus: Older teen fans of La La Land star Stone and Get Smart comedian Carell will find both in terrific form: Stone's close-ups convey a world of complicated emotion while Carell is appealing as the publicity-chasing larrikin who wants 'to put the show back into chauvinism'. While 1970s (and current) sports sexism is slammed, this easy-to-watch two hour movie avoids she-versus-he judgements.

Adult Compatibility: Perfect casting includes Packed to the Rafters' Jessica McNamee as steely Australian Margaret Court and Austin Stowell as King's saintly husband. The romance is over-stretched but a clever ending respects both players.

Critic's rating: 8/10

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE (PG)

Released: September 21.

Story: The latest, animated LEGO movie is a standalone comedy adventure. Thanks to his dad Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux) being a super-villain, 16 year old Lloyd (Dave Franco) is NOT popular at school. Lloyd rebels against Dad's wicked ways by joining a team of ninjas pledged to save their city Ninjago from Garmadon's attacks.

Language: Num-num-num … nothing except for one 'shut your face'.

Romance: Marriage themes.

Violence: Frequent missile attacks. Also, blows, kicks and city destruction by a mega 'fluffy demon' (a giant kitten).

Ages: 3 – 6: Littlies at one preview seemed initially engrossed if increasingly wearied by noisy non-stop aerial attacks.

7 – 12: Father-son bonding themes will score. The fun gimmick of LEGO-made characters and attack-ships boosts a predictable plot. Ditto the live action opening and end credits out-takes with charming martial arts star Jackie Chan.

13-plus: Lightly amusing although there is only one female ninja (come ON, Hollywood!!!). Female viewers (and others) are also not rewarded by the routine pop soundtrack and cluttered visuals; don't see this on a small screen.

Adult Compatibility: The formula shows, and lacks the spontaneous feel of the previous movies. The Leftovers' Theroux imitates but can't match LEGO Batman voice star Will Arnett.

Critic's rating: 6/10

AMERICAN ASSASSIN (MA)

Released: September 14.

Story: Action thriller. When his girlfriend is killed by a terrorist, university student Mitch (Dylan O'Brien) swears revenge. That brings him to the attention of a secret CIA assassination unit run by veteran agent Hurley (Michael Keaton). If Mitch survives boot camp, he'll hunt villains through Europe, and clash with mysterious operative Ghost (Taylor Kitsch). Directed by Michael Cuesta (television's Homeland) and based on Vince Flynn's novel.

Language: Frequent.

Romance: Kisses, adult references, brief nudity.

Violence: Non-stop hand to hand combat, shoot-outs. Also, a fingernail-centric torture scene, electrocution, explosions.

Ages: 3 – 6: No way, dude!

7 – 12: And again!!!

13-plus: Older teens who have grown up with The Maze Runner star O'Brien are the target audience for this well-produced combination of Jason Bourne action (assassination bureau intrigue with topical political references) and James Bond theatrics (over-the-top stolen nukes plot). Appealing O'Brien works his heart out; he and equally super-fit Kitsch put the grit into the fight scenes. For once, the screen women (excellent Shiva Negar and Sanaa Lathan) are more than accessories, meaning female viewers won't feel cheesed off.

Adult Compatibility: High, thanks to another personality-charged contribution from Keaton. Yes, the plot tails into predictability but terrific camerawork, editing and music keep you watching to the end.

Critic's rating: 7/10

THE EMOJI MOVIE (G)

Released: September 14.

Story: Animated fantasy. Emoji Gene (voiced by TJ Miller) is the 'meh' (bored-looking symbol) in the phone owned by school student Alex. But enthusiastic Gene can't help making other faces. Now he's threatened with being deleted – unless he and new friends Hi-5 (James Corden) and Jailbreak (Anna Faris) travel through various applications to contact Alex directly.

Language: "Bubble-butt" and the inevitable almost-swears with emoji Poop.

Romance: First love themes.

Violence: Falls, a punch, burns; scary-looking deletion 'bots.

Ages: 3 – 6: Tots at one multiplex preview seemed confused ("why can't he change his face, Dad?"). Christina Aguilera's peppy dance number perked them up.

7 – 12: This feels like a failed Inside Out. The simplistic-looking emojis lack the personality of the animated, talking objects in Beauty and The Beast and Sword in the Stone; more interaction with the human kids may have helped. Any pluses? Well, it's brightly coloured and nicely made; the 87 minute length is just right. But it's really only worth seeing for the cute pre-show short with Hotel Transylvania's characters (voiced by Adam Sandler and Selena Gomez).

13-plus: Mysterious hacker Jailbreak adds interest although rushed comments about girl power can't hide the story's miniscule female presence.

Adult Compatibility: One long product placement.

Critic's rating: 4/10

THE DANCER (M)

Released: September 28 (selected cinemas).

Story: Based-on-fact period drama follows the life of an 1890s dance pioneer. Loïe Fuller (Soko) grows up on the American frontier with her French gambler father. After his death, she travels to Paris to audition for the famous music hall Folies Bergères. With the help of a handsome, ailing aristocrat (Gaspard Ulliel), she risks her own health and happiness to stage her experimental 'Serpentine' dance. In English, with subtitled French.

Language: None.

Romance: Kisses, brief bedroom scenes, brief nudity.

Violence: Drug references, death themes.

Ages: 3 – 6: No.

7 -12: No.

13-plus: Fans will appreciate a film which shows a dancer's painful commitment. Augustine star Soko sets the tone: she's charismatic and believable, not prettied up. Yes, that's Johnny Depp's daughter Lily-Rose competently playing Loïe's ambitious protégé Isadora Duncan. Recreations of Loïe's famous dances, with their cleverly layered materials and theatrical lighting, are still stunning; you'll want more. Subtitles shouldn't faze older teens. This is a rare recent film which passes the Bechdel Test.

Adult Compatibility: Inspired camerawork increases drama intensity. As the drug-addicted Count d'Orsay, Ulliel (who played Yves Saint Laurent in fashion flick Saint Laurent) does well with a limited role. Further biographical detail at the end would have been nice.

Critic's rating: 8/10

CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE (G)

Released: September 14 (QLD); September 21 (NSW, ACT, VIC, WA); September 28 (NT, SA, TAS).

Story: Animated comedy adventure based on Dav Pilkey's books. Best friends George (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are horrified when mean Principal Krupp separates them. The boys decide to turn Krupp into Captain Underpants, the helpful super-hero in their home-made comic books. What could go wrong?!

Language: Tra la la! None!

Romance: None.

Violence: Falls, threats, blows; Krupp is hit by several cars.

Ages: 3 – 6: Younger tots at one screening seemed to lose the somewhat-wandering plot midway. The manic pace and constant shouting might unsettle some.

7 – 12: Perfect audience for an impressively hardworking flick which doesn't just dish out the usual bland computer animation and toy product placement. Amusing detours include scenes with sock puppets, flicker-books and lots of different animation styles. Yes, there are no lead female characters and constant potty humour will only reinforce bad habits. But the friendship theme is a winner; ditto the boys' habit of expressing their frustration through their drawings. Upbeat songs, including Yello's synthesized pop classic Oh Yeah, reinforce the sense of fun.

13-plus: There'll be no complaints if you take younger teens to this.

Adult Compatibility: A rare win for adult chaperones.

Critic's rating: 9/10

IT (MA)

Released: September 7.

Story: American horror thriller based on Stephen King's book. When children begin disappearing, a group of 13 year old boys investigates. They uncover clues to their town's sinister past and links to a malevolent clown known as Pennywise.

Language: Unrelenting swearing – by the kids.

Romance: Kisses, adult references.

Violence: Beatings, bullying, stabbings, falls, deaths.

Ages: 3 – 6: Yes, if you want to give them nightmares for life.

7 – 12: Parents should know this is far gorier than Stand By Me, the movie based on King's other tale about investigating teens. While it has lots of classic horror suspense (creaking doors, creepy houses), the violence and swearing rule out the tweens.

13-plus: Older teens will appreciate the bizarre images (as the kids hallucinate), melodramatic music and clever use of quiet to ratchet up the tension. But the characters are walking clichés; that makes the 135 minute running time a slog. Girl viewers get no rewards: the only age-appropriate female lead is another drearily written Dream Girl Fantasy Object. The constant swearing begins to make every scene feel the same. Of course, if clowns freak you out, this will scare – at least at first.

Adult Compatibility: For all the clumsy information-dumping dialogue, the film feels curiously unresolved.

Critic's rating: 6/10

THOMAS & FRIENDS: JOURNEY BEYOND SODOR THE MOVIE (G)

Released: August 31 (limited run scheduled).

Story: New movie spin-off from the famous British animated television series. Cheeky blue engine Thomas (voiced by John Hasler) is bored by his work on the branch line. He grabs his chance to go to the mainland but soon gets lost. Thomas finds himself helping overworked engines in a goods yard. But when he tries to leave, he discovers this is a 'bads' yard.

Language: 'Cinders and ashes!!!' is it.

Romance: None.

Violence: Derailments, a chase.

Ages: 3 – 6: Menacing (train) faces might be too much for littlies; with no lead girl characters, female tots at one multiplex screening were noticeably restless – and probably confused when Thomas addresses male and female engines as 'you guys'. However, older fans of the tele-series will enjoy the amusing 'experimental' engines (who offer a positive message about difference) and six ballads and pop songs. The non-violent approach makes this an excellent early-viewing experience.

7 – 12: Yes, if they're avid fans.

13-plus: Only for a nostalgia trip.

Adult Compatibility: Gentle humour will please accompanying adults; listen for Hugh Bonneville voicing 'invisible' engine Merlin. The animation is better in some parts than others. The movie is scheduled for an imminent DVD release.

Critic's rating: 7/10

ALI'S WEDDING (M)

Released: August 31.

Story: Australian family comedy drama. Ali (Osamah Sami) has problems: his Iraqi-cleric father expects him to do a medical degree; his mother expects him to marry a traditional Iraqi girl. When Ali flunks the entrance exam and falls in love with ambitious Australian-Lebanese medical student Dianne (Helana Sawires), he could ruin his family's reputation in their conservative Melbourne community. Based on the life of actor-co-writer Sami. Winner of the Sydney Film Festival Audience Award.

Language: Twenty-one swear words (most from trying to speak 'Australian').

Romance: Kisses, discreet adult themes.

Violence: Threats.

Age: 3 – 6: No.

7 – 12: No.

13-plus: Older teens should identify with themes about being 'trapped by family'. This clever romp combines Romeo and Juliet romance, slapstick comedy and authentic-feeling details about multi-cultural Australia. There is bold commentary on Ali's interfering community: its positives (family values, a terrific support network) and negatives (sexism, malicious shaming in the mosque). But what makes this work is the romantic rapport of charming Sami and radiant Sawires.

Adult Compatibility: Yes, this has echoes of plainly framed, raucous, ethnic-Aussie suburban tales such as The Wog Boy but it also ambitiously tries to give Anglo- Celtic Australians a way of identifying with Ali's problems. An unexpected gem.

Critic's rating: 8/10

 

GIFTED (M)

Released: August 31.

Story: American maths prodigy drama. Seven year old Mary (Mckenna Grace) lives with her boat mechanic uncle Frank (Chris Evans) – and is a maths genius. Her school principal wants her to accept a study-intensive scholarship; Frank wants her to have a carefree childhood. Then Mary's rich grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), herself a frustrated mathematician, tells Frank she wants custody of Mary.

Language: Ten swear words.

Romance: Kisses, discreet themes.

Violence: A blow, threats.

Ages: 3 – 6: Absent-mother themes will overwhelm them.

7 – 12: All the support kid actors are adorable, but Mary's (superbly acted) distress is too much. That's a shame because Hollywood rarely tackles girl prodigies.

13-plus: Fans of Captain America star Evans should be thrilled by his best drama performance ever; he and Grace work superbly together, helped by clever directing which keeps their scenes tender, funny and amazingly spontaneous-feeling.

Adult Compatibility: A top quality family drama is near perfect on every level, especially acting, music and a script full of memorable dialogue. No character is short-changed here, from Octavia Spencer's sparky neighbour to Jenny Slate's supportive teacher. This sensitively explores the pressures, for both parents and the children themselves, of being a gifted kid. We wish Hollywood made more of these stories ….

Critic's rating: 9/10

 

MOUNTAIN (TBC)

Released: September 21 (selected cinemas).

Story: Australian-made non-fiction feature in the style of Koyaanisqatsi. This sets lyrical landscape images to music by Beethoven, Vivaldi and Australian Chamber Orchestra director Richard Tognetti. The result is 70 minutes of stunning footage of the world's highest peaks and the people who climb them. Narrated by actor Willem Dafoe and directed by Australian Jennifer Peedom who made the Everest documentary Sherpa. Includes black and white and colour footage.

Language: None.

Romance: None.

Violence: Falls, death themes.

Ages: 3 – 6: No, the playground ladders are more their thing.

7 – 12: Adventurous tweens should love images of a man riding a bike along a clifftop.

13-plus: Ditto. With scenes of avalanches, skiing down from mountain summits and 'free-climbing' (no ropes) on peaks such as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, this is a dynamic record of extreme sports. References to historic climbs, and climate change themes, add context to what could have been a mere compilation piece.

Adult Compatibility: Some of the hyped narration by acclaimed landscape writer Robert McFarlane feels clunky here ('the mountains we climb are mountains of the mind') and viewers will admire the film without being emotionally involved. But director Peedom and cinematographer Renan Ozturk (Sherpa), helped by footage from more than 40 photographers, deliver an entertaining rumination on the lure of high peaks.

Critic's rating: 7/10

 

PATTI CAKE$ (M)

Released: September 14.

Story: American rapper comedy drama. Patricia Dombrowski (Australian actor Danielle Macdonald) dreams of being a rap star. Unfortunately, she is white, female and lives in near-poverty in New Jersey with her alcoholic mum. Patti keeps trying but so far, her collaboration with best friend Hareesh (Siddarth Dhananjay) hasn't delivered musical gold. Then she meets an African-American punk musician (Mamoudou Athie). And her raucous Nana (Cathy Moriarty) decides to lend a hand.

Language: Frequent swearing.

Romance: Kisses, sexual references.

Violence: Bullying, threats, a blow, death themes.

Ages: 3 – 6: No.

7 – 12: Annoyingly, copious language rules this group out although aspiring tween rappers – or anyone trying to break into the music industry – will find plenty of inspiration in this classic outsider tale.

13-plus: Yes, this is a familiar aspiring singer plot. So it's lucky that Macdonald is such a break-out star. She'll score the inevitable comparison to that other cheeky Aussie blonde comedienne – Rebel Pitch Perfect Wilson – but Macdonald is also an expert character actor, able to handle the film's tougher drama moments and indie-movie grittiness.

Adult Compatibility: The rap lyrics and thrash metal music might leave some viewers cold. Compensations include Raging Bull star Moriarty in a scene-stealing performance.

Critic's rating: 8/10

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