The Foreigner

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 5:21 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, graphic, intense violence including terrorist bombings, guns, fighting, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 8, 2018
Copyright 2017 Sparkle Role Media

“The Foreigner” is in a genre I refer to as “Who is that chef?” movies. An actor with martial arts skills plays a role that has everyone else in the film saying, “Wait, how come that seemingly ordinary and unprepossessing guy has such mad special ops abilities?” It’s a bit like superhero movies, where mild-mannered Clark Kent turns out to have superpowers. And it gives all of us in the audience a chance to dream that someday those around us just might have that same highly vindicating realization that we are far cooler and more powerful than they think.

This film stars Jackie Chan, who also produced, so he was able to craft it around his persona and his priorities. This is not one of his light-hearted fun action films like the wildly popular “Rush Hour” movies and the early Chinese films like “Wheels on Meals,” where his poker face and split-second athleticism showed the inspiration of his idol, Buster Keaton. This is a “serious” (meaning pretentious) saga, based on the thriller by Stephen Leather about the owner of a Chinese restaurant in London who is devastated by the murder of his daughter in a terrorist attack and — say it with me — turns out to have special ops training that makes him the wrong guy to pick on.

As the movie opens, Chan’s character, Quan, picks up his teenage daughter at school and lets us know how protective he is just in time for her to get blown up. He visits the man he thinks knows who is responsible, an Irish politician and former IRA member named Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, working with the man who cast him in “Goldeneye”). The plot here relates to The Troubles and some renegades who want to start them up again, so get ready for lots of whiskey in cut glass highball glasses. He patiently and politely refuses to leave until he can see Hennessy, so, once he’s been patted down (“He’s just carrying his groceries,” the security guys assure their boss), he is ushered into Hennessy’s office and given the brush off. It turns out the groceries are the ingredients for a bomb, which Quan installs safely in a place that is conveniently empty. “One old man running circles around us,” says Hennessy. “I won’t underestimate him again.” Oh, yes he will.

There’s not enough substance here to make its overall dreariness worth it. And too much “how to” to watch without feeling very uncomfortable that the ones we are underestimating in real life are the bad guys.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely violent peril and action with many characters injured and killed, terrorist bombings, torture, murder, assault weapons, traps, fights, graphic and disturbing images, sad deaths, sexual references and situations including using sex to get information or access, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Should the police torture witnesses to prevent terrorist attacks? How were Quan’s actions different from the people he was fighting?

If you like this, try: The “John Wick” films

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The Mountain Between Us

Posted on October 5, 2017 at 5:48 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril, plane crash, animal attack, characters injured and killed, disturbing scenes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 6, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 26, 2017
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

A surgeon named Ben (Idris Elba) and a photojournalist named Alex (Kate Winslet) have to find their way home after a charter plane crashes in the Colorado Rockies. Both of them were stuck at the airport after their flight to Denver was cancelled and both had an urgent need to get to their destinations as quickly as possible. He was scheduled to perform a critical brain operation on a child. She was on her way to her wedding after completing an assignment taking pictures of gang members. So Alex introduces herself to Ben and finds a pilot (Beau Bridges) who agrees to take them. When he tells them he didn’t have to file a flight plan because they were only going to be in the air during daylight, they might have shown some concern. But they were in a hurry. In fact, they were in so much of a hurry that neither one of them told anyone what they were doing either.

So when the pilot has a stroke and the plane crashes at the top of a mountain, no one knows where they are. They have almost no equipment and even less food. They do have the pilot’s dog. Kate is wounded, but Ben handily applies first aid, including a custom made splint fashioned from airplane shrapnel. As she is sleeping, he buries the pilot and assesses their situation.

The location footage is gorgeous and beautifully filmed. But the script, based on the book by Charles Martin, is so soapy you could wash a week’s laundry in it, with much more focus on the artificial differences (despite her injury, she wants to take action while he thinks it is safest to stay where they are) and under-imagined peril. What we want to see is the brave and clever ways they solve the problem of survival. What we get is bickering, hurt feelings, a non-surprising revelation, and a romantic encounter, with a coda that turns the whole adventure into a meet cute. Elba and Winslet don’t have much chemistry, in part because her character is immature and reckless, not nearly as charming as the movie thinks she is. Their conversations are not especially revealing or illuminating for them or for us. What should be an inspiring story becomes a weary slog.

Parents should know that this film includes constant peril, with a scary plane crash in the mountains, animals, ice, deprivation, a bear trap, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, sexual references and situation, brief strong language

Family discussion: How did Ben and Alex rely on their professional skills in evaluating their options? What were their biggest differences?

If you like this, try: “Touching the Void,” “127 Hours,” and “K2”

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Blade Runner 2049

Posted on October 3, 2017 at 1:59 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and explicit peril and violence, characters injured and killed,
Date Released to Theaters: October 6, 2017

Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
I’ve got a bit of a conundrum here. As has been widely reported, the filmmakers have asked the critics to avoid spoilers (no problem, we are always careful about that), but they have done so with a very specific list of topics/characters/developments they don’t want us to reveal, so exhaustive that it leaves us with little to say beyond: the camerawork is outstanding (please, give Roger Deakins that Oscar already) and the movie is magnificently imagined, stunningly designed, thoughtful and provocative, and one of the best of the year.

I hate to admit it, but I think they’re right. I really do want you to have the same experience I did, including all of the movie’s surprises. So forgive me for being oblique, and after you’ve seen it, come back and we can discuss it in detail, all right?

In the original “Blade Runner,” based on the story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick, Harrison Ford played Deckard, a 21st century detective sent to find and terminate four “replicants,” humanoid robots created to perform physical labor but who somehow are evolving to the point where they want to be independent of human control. Replicants are so close to being human in appearance and manner (and, in the future, life is so dystopic that humans have become less feeling, less compassionate) that it is increasingly difficult to figure out who is human and what being human means. Like Deckard, K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, sent by Joshi, his human boss (Robin Wright), to find the older generation of replicants and terminate them. The new generation of replicants is more obedient, or at least that is the way they are programmed. “It’s my job to keep order,” she tells him. She gives him a new assignment and when he hesitates she asks, “Are you saying no?” “I wasn’t aware that was an option.” “Atta boy,” she says approvingly. K has uncovered something that Joshi believes is an extermination-level threat to humanity as what accountants call a going concern.

This film explores ideas of memory, identity, and, yes, humanity. And it does that through a detective story that is grounded in a Raymond Chandler noir world of deception and betrayal, taking place in a gorgeous, brilliantly designed dystopian future of perpetual rain where organic material is barely a memory and huge, Ozymandias-like ruins carry faint reminders of better times and grander ambitions. Most people have never seen a tree, even a dead one, and a crudely carved wooden toy is priceless. A woman creates pleasant childhood memories to be implanted so that replicants will be more stable, more empathetic, and easier to control. The trick about control, though, is that nature will rebel against it, and those who try to maintain control by sending people or replicants or anyone out to investigate and ask questions is going to find that knowledge can dissolve authority.

That’s about all I can say except to add that Gosling and Ford are outstanding and Sylvia Hoeks is a standout as a character I can’t tell you anything more about, while Jared Leto is the movie’s weak spot as another character I can’t tell you anything about. So I’ll end by saying that this is that rare sequel deserving of its original version, not because it replicates — for want of a better word — the first one, but because it pays tribute (note touches like the see-through raincoat) and then finds its own reason for being, and we are lucky enough to come along.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/action violence with graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, reference to torture, drinking, smoking, some strong language, sexual references and situations, prostitutes, and nudity.

Family discussion: What elements or concerns about today’s society are the basis for this vision of the future? What rules would you make about replicants? What is the most human aspect of the replicants?

If you like this, try: the original “Blade Runner,” “Terminator 2,” “Total Recall,” “Children of Men,” and the writing of Philip K. Dick

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American Made

Posted on September 28, 2017 at 5:42 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including guns, explosions, plane crash, murders, corruption
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 29, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 1, 2018

Copyright 2017 Universal
Director Doug Liman is not just the man behind stylish, politically savvy, exceptionally well-constructed action films like four “Bourne” films, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and the under-appreciated “Edge of Tomorrow.” He is also the son of the late Arthur Liman, the legendary Washington lawyer who was chief counsel for the United States Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, better known as Iran-Contra. His new film, “American Made,” is stylish, politically savvy, exceptionally well-constructed, and a smarter, more compelling take than the media on the real-life events his father helped uncover.

And he could not have chosen better than his “Edge of Tomorrow” star Tom Cruise, back from the dreary “Mummy,” and doing what he does best as the charming bad boy with a gift for flying and a need for speed, Barry Seal.

Even as the youngest pilot in TWA history, Seal is bored taking planes full of passengers back and forth to Bakersfield and Vancouver. So when a red-headed man with a beard named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) who seems to know everything about him shows up and asks if he’d like to do some flying for his country, and shows him the super-fast plane they’d let him fly, he accepts. “We’re building nations!” Schafer tells him. “All this is legal?” Seal asks for the first and last time. “If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer tells him. “Just don’t get caught.” At first it is just reconnaissance, but then he starts some deliveries: cash in exchange for information. His contact is a Panamanian Colonel named Noriega. The CIA does not exactly mind. When Seal asks if a bag filled with cash in the hanger is his, Schafer smiles, “What bag?”

Word gets around about “the gringo who delivers,” and Seal is conscripted by three young, ambitious drug dealers to help them ship their product to the United States. One of them is named Pablo Escobar. Eventually, he is also delivering guns, as the CIA decides they should arm peasants to help them fight communists, though the peasants would rather sell the guns for money and, after Seal begins to bring them to the US for training in military operations, escape to live in America.

Like his antihero, Liman has great energy and panache, with a cheeky storytelling style that matches Seal, who can say (twice) “I tend to leap before I look” without an atom of ruefulness. “Do you trust me?” he asks his skeptical wife (Sarah Wright), with that Tom Cruise grin. “No!” she says, quite reasonably. So, she packs up in the middle of the night and moves with him when he tells her they have to go. He does not tell her it is because they are going to be arrested at dawn, but she gets the picture.

Seal is a cheerful rascal, but the movie shows us that he is more honest than the politicians and intelligence community. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan appear in archival footage, and Robert Farrior appears as Oliver North. Guns go back and forth from the Soviets to the PLO to the Israelis to the Contras to the drug cartel, and Seal gets paid, in cash, at almost every stop. Even after a family member is assassinated, “Godfather”-style, he “just keeps delivering that pizza.” And it is in no one’s interest to stop him. The community appreciates his business (the bank gives him his own vault), his job creation, and his generosity (there’s a Seal baseball field for the kids). Until it doesn’t work.

This is a smart, exciting, funny, and surprisingly sharp story, very much of its era, and very much of ours as well.

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and violence including guns, explosions, murders, plane crash, drugs and drug dealing, corruption, some strong language, reckless behavior, explicit sexual situations and nudity.

Family discussion: Who are the worst criminals in this story? Who, if anyone, is the hero?

If you like this, try: “Blow” and “Kill the Messenger”

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Battle of the Sexes

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 9:53 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 1, 2018

Copyright Fox Searchlight
“You’ve come a long way, baby!” was the 1970’s slogan for a cigarette for women. Virginia Slims were marketed as a badge of liberation and sophistication. They had a woman’s slightly naughty-sounding name and a word with a lot of appeal to female consumers (and a suggestion that they would aid in keeping weight down). They had a kicky advertising campaign. And they were the only commercial product willing to sponsor the brand new Women’s Tennis Association, founded by tennis champion Billie Jean King to protest the pay differential in professional tennis, with women making a fraction of the prize money awarded to the men. When they raised the issue, they were told that women’s tennis was not as interesting (even though they sold as many or more tickets at the same price as the tickets to see the men play) and because the men had families to support. It may now seem absurd, or at least off-brand to have a women’s athletic competition sponsored by a cigarette, but probably no more absurd than the argument that “the men’s tennis is more exciting to watch; it’s biology.”

One-time men’s tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a bit of a sexist and more than a bit of a showman, and much more than a bit of a gambler. And so he bragged that even in his 50’s he could beat the top-ranked women’s player. Margaret Court accepted the challenge, and he triumphed in a humiliating defeat. And so, Billie Jean King agreed to play him in something between a sporting event and a three ring circus, complete with marching band, scantily dressed cheerleaders in Sugar Daddy outfits, and the ceremonial presentation by King to Riggs of an actual pig.

So, not your usual night on ESPN, which, of course, had not been invented yet. This was front-page news in the midst of the fight for what people were still calling “women’s liberation.” This was consciousness raising whether you liked it or not.

It is especially suitable that this film was directed by a female/male team: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”). They found the human story, the vulnerability, the drive, the fear, the resolve behind the hoopla and hyperbole, and they have made a film about real people that is moving and, even though we know the outcome of the game, suspenseful.

Bobby Riggs would have been a public feminist if he could make a dollar at it. (A dollar, by the way, is what the original players in King’s Women’s Tennis Association were paid to sign up.) He would cheerfully admit, except possibly to his wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue), that he was more of a showman and a huckster than an athlete. Billie Jean King was a determined, disciplined athlete at the forefront of the Gloria Steinem era of feminists. She was companionably married to Larry King (not the TV show host), but she was beginning to admit to herself that she was attracted to women. Her hairstylist, Marilyn (Andrea Reisborough), leans in and brushes her hand on Billie Jean’s cheek. The woman who never allowed herself any distractions has met a distraction she cannot ignore.

Faris and Dayton create the environment of the 70’s without any air quotes. The cinematography, the score, the deft use of Howard Cosell’s actual commentary during the match (at one point, he says approvingly that King moves like a man), evoke the era without exaggeration or snottiness. Every performance shines, including Sarah Silverman in the Eve Arden wry sidekick role. The film is generous to all of its characters, even the real and metaphorical pigs.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and an explicit situation with some nudity, issues of sexual orientation, some crude language, alcohol, cigarettes, sexism, and homophobia.

Family discussion: What is different today and what hasn’t changed? Why did Billie Jean King decide to play Bobby Riggs?

If you like this, try: Footage of the real King/Riggs game

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