The Rhythm Section

Posted on January 30, 2020 at 5:39 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended very graphic and intense peril and violence, characters injured and killed, terrorism, suicide bomber, guns, knives, chases, explosions, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 27, 2020
Copyright 2020 Paramount

What is this weird fascination with stories of men taking lost, pathetic, but lissome young women and turning them into spies and assassins? A century ago, we had Henry Higgins teaching a flower girl to speak like a duchess. Now, we have “La Femme Nikita” and its American remake “Point of No Return,” its Hong Kong version, “Black Cat,” its Italian version, “Sexy Killer,” its two television series, the Jennifer Lawrence film “Red Sparrow,” the Jennifer Garner series “Alias,” Luc Besson’s 2019 flop “Anna,” and the father/daughter version — movie and television series — “Hanna.” When that training includes masquerading as a prostitute so we can see her in her skivvies, it becomes clear how outdated this set-up has become.

And now we have The Rhythm Section, with Stephanie Patrick, played by Blake Lively in a series of bad wigs, as the brilliant Oxford student turned narcotic drug abuser and prostitute after the death of her family in a plane crash three years before this movie begins. I should say played by a series of bad wigs with Blake Lively in a supporting role, because this very talented actress is given little to do but look sullen, sullen and a little afraid, and sullen and a little determined. Please add “A Simple Favor” to your Netflix queue if you have not seen it yet to get a look at how good she can be.

The people behind this film are the producers of the Bond films, and they are clearly trying to create a distaff franchise, based on the books by Mark Burnell, who also wrote the screenplay. Unfortunately, it is weak on character and plot and fails to have any of the ingredients that make the Bond movies work. While there are stops in many cities, identified on screen but otherwise mostly interchangeable, it does not have the glamor, the urgency, or the fun of seeing all the gizmos and how they get deployed. Revenge is so reliable and relatable a motive that it is almost impossible to get wrong in a movie, but even that cannot bring this story to life. It’s supposed to be all you go girl! with a badass female lead. But, sigh, it’s more male gaze again, with one of her disguises being high-end call girl in skimpy skivvies and somehow a shocking tragedy inexplicably inspires her to jump into bed with someone she barely knows.

A journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) finds Stephanie, a drugged-out prostitute constantly replaying images of the last time she saw her parents and brother and sister, and the voicemail message her mother left her before getting on the doomed plane. He says he has information showing that it was not an accident; it was a terrorist bomb, and he knows how to find the man who built the bomb. She initially refuses to have anything to do with him, but then goes to his apartment, where he has one of those movie-friendly rooms with walls covered with clippings and photos. He unwisely leaves her there, giving her money and keys, and she unwisely tips off the bomber, and soon Proctor is dead, on the floor in a pool of blood.

Stephanie follows a clue she got from the photos on the wall to track down the Proctor’s source, a former spy turned rogue played by Jude Law. No cold turkey montage (“I’m a user, not an addict,” she explains), so straight into the training montage, turning Stephanie into a lean, mean, fighting machine in a matter of months, while we flashback to Jude Law doing the same thing for Captain Marvel, only better.

The action and characters would have to be so much better to persuade us to miss the howling plot holes and tinge of misogyny — really, she has to be a prostitute? Luckily for the movie, we never invest enough in it to care.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended and very graphic peril and violence, murders, chases, explosions, terrorism, knives, guns, bombs, poison, characters injured and killed, disturbing images, very strong language, prostitution, and drugs.

Family discussion: What were Stephanie’s most significant assets in accomplishing her goals? Why did the reporter want to contact her? What will she do next?

If you like this, try: “La Femme Nikita” and “Hanna” (movie and television series)

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Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies Spies

The Gentlemen

Posted on January 23, 2020 at 5:47 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language throughout, sexual references and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, overdose
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense and graphic violence, guns, poison, arson, many characters injured and killed including young adults
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 24, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 20, 2020
Copyright 2019 STX

Writer-director Guy Ritchie is back where he belongs. “The Gentlemen” is, like his early films “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” a nasty, twisty, stylish, and darkly comic crime thriller set in England and featuring low-life characters with impenetrable accents. This is a relief after his plodding mis-matches like “Aladdin” and “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword,” though I got a kick out of seeing the poster for his underrated “Man from UNCLE” in this film.

It starts with a bang (a blood-spattered shooting in a pub) and then goes back in time, a story within a story, with Hugh Grant, as someone Ritchie considers even less worthy of respect than murderous, drug-dealing criminals — a sleazy tabloid reporter named Fletcher with a long-lens camera, a friend who can lip-read, and a story he wants to sell for 20 million pounds. Grant himself has had his problems with sleazy tabloid reporters and is clearly enjoying himself tremendously and getting some revenge in the role. His performance is deliciously devastating.

The person he wants to blackmail is Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), an American expat with a highly successful marijuana growing and distribution business. Pearson is trying to sell the business so he can retire, and is about to close on an offer from another American expat drug dealer, the effete Matthew (“Succession’s” Jeremy Strong). They’re in the stage that business types call due diligence, confirming the valuation of 400 million pounds. Michael has another offer, from a thuggish upstart known as Dry Eye (“Crazy Rich Asians'” Henry Golding). His bid is much lower in cash, but he plans to make up the difference with threats.

All of this is well known by Michael’s closest associate, Ray (Charlie Hunnam). But Fletcher, who has shown up unexpected and uninvited in Ray’s home, is relishing the chance to tell the story, even setting it up as though he is pitching a movie, even providing details of film stock and lenses, which the movie we are watching obediently demonstrates, reminding us of the air quotes that keep the bloodiest parts of the story from getting too bleak.

Michelle Dockery, a long way from Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey,” is also having a lot of fun playing Michael’s wife, as tough as he is or tougher, with a Cockney accent and as sharp as her Louboutin stilettos. You could almost see the Lady Mary of 2020 having the same cooperative arrangement with Michael that the other estate-poor gentry do in the film. Some of the twists are not as twisty as they intend and some of the characters are not as colorful as the movie thinks they are, but it is still a welcome return to what Ritchie does best.

Parents should know that this is a crime drama with extended and very graphic violence, many characters injured and killed including young adults with devastated parents, disturbing images, guns, poison, arson, murder, kidnapping, sexual references, drug dealing and overdose, and constant very strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Would you say that there are any good guys in this movie, or at least better guys? Who, and why? What will happen to Michael next?

If you like this, try: “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Get Shorty,” and “Layer Cake”

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Crime DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies

The Last Full Measure

Posted on January 23, 2020 at 5:41 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, medication
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic and disturbing images of wartime violence, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 24, 2020

Copyright 2019 Roadside Attractions
The story of the exceptional valor of Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, and the story of the thirty-year effort by the men he saved to see that he received recognition with a posthumus Medal of Honor are plenty dramatic, so it really wasn’t necessary to ramp it up with fictional details about a cover-up. And even an AARP A-list in the cast, including Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, John Savage, Amy Madigan, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Fonda, each with a chance at a bravura star turn, cannot match the clips over the final credits of the real-life veterans who would not quit until his valor was acknowledged. He ie one of only three Air Force enlisted men to be awarded the Medal of Honor in military history.

So a documentary about what really happened would have been better. Instead we have a diligent, well-intentioned, if overheated story that is as much about the (fictional) Defense Department staffer who was assigned to investigate the application for the Medal of Honor, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), and the lessons he learned from contact with the honor and courage of Pitsenbarger, his parents (Plummer and Ladd), and the humble but insistent men who would not quit.

The movie goes back and forth between 1966 Vietnam and 1995 Washington DC. In Vietnam, Pitsenbarger was an Air Force pararescueman, not in a combat company himself but part of a team that evacuated wounded soldiers via helicopter. In one of of the bloodiest days of the war (meaning highest US casualty count), when the Americans were being slaughtered, he rescued wounded men at great risk to his own life and then picked up a gun and fought alongside them, until he was shot and killed. These scenes are extremely violent and graphic and often hard to follow, especially since there is no effort to make the younger versions of the characters played by Fonda, Harris, Jackson, and Savage look or sound like their counterparts.

In 1995 Washington, DC, Huffman (a fictional character) is an ambitious Defense Department civilian bureaucrat with a young son and a pregnant wife (neither of whom serve any function in the story except to be adorable and supportive, with one brief pep talk. His career is in jeopardy when the political appointee who serves as Secretary of the Air Force (Linus Roache) announces that he is resigning (and yet somehow still in the job what looks like a year later at the award ceremony but okay). And when he is assigned to develop a record for the medal application, including interviewing eye witnesses and tracking down mysteriously missing paperwork.

None of this is true (and by the way, the wives of the veterans whose lives were saved also played a significant part in getting the medal), but it makes for good drama, giving each of the venerable co-stars a moment suitable for a lifetime achievement clip real. They fall at different points on the range of PTSD, but all of them end up confessing and achieving some kind of catharsis. It is poignant to see the clearly ailing Peter Fonda in his last role as the most fragile of the group. And it is a little bit surreal to see John Savage of “The Deer Hunter” back in Vietnam 42 years later. Not the “Kurtz-ian burnout smoking ganja under a bohdi tree” that Huffman imagined but someone who found peace by bringing peace to others. Ladd’s monologue about sending her teenage son to war is also a highlight, and a welcome reminder that when we say no to sending our children into battle it just means we are sending someone else’s children in their place.

It is artificial and awkward. but thankfully it does not try to make the purpose of Pitsenbarger’s story into a life lesson for a fictional civilian. A moving award ceremony at the end reminds that the purpose of any hero’s story is to give a life lesson to us.

Parensts should know that this movie includes scenes of the Vietnam war with very graphic wartime violence and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, strong language, and smoking.

Family discussion: How did Scott change as he spoke to the veterans? What did he learn about listening from Kepper? What kind of medal would you like to earn?

If you like this, try: “Hacksaw Ridge” and “We Were Soldiers”

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Drama Inspired by a true story movie review Movies War

What the Little Women Read

Posted on January 17, 2020 at 10:55 pm

I first read Little Women when I was in 4th grade. It became and remains one of my favorite books ever and I re-read it every few years since, most recently after seeing the new Greta Gerwig movie, which I loved.

It also gave me a gift. Over the years, I would come across other books and recognize them from references in Little Women. So I really enjoyed Trix Wilkins’ article about the books the March girls read, from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (which the March girls not only refer to but act out) to the dull essays by Belsham Jo has to read aloud to Aunt March to Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, whose characters inspired the names of the March girls’ club members and Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which Jo borrows from Mr. Lawrence.

In re-reading the book, I noticed a reference Wilkins did not mention. I happened to hear for the first time recently about an author named E.D.E.N. Southworth. According to a recent article:

Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth was one of the most successful American writers—male or female—of the mid-19th century, outselling contemporaries like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was a mainstay of Washington’s early literary scene: She hosted Friday night salons at her Georgetown cottage, attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, and is even credited with encouraging Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In Little Women, Jo refers to a popular author of lurid melodramas named “Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury,” clearly a reference to Southworth. Now I want to read one of her books! By the way, you can read the Southworth-ian stories Louisa May Alcott wrote, the ones Professor Bhaer scolds her about in Behind a Mask.

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