My Spy

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/violence and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mayhem and spy-related action violence, many characters injured and killed, off-screen death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright 2020 Amazon Studios
“My Spy” does not try to conceal the sources it relies on for its storyline — other movies. This is a movie about a CIA agent who refers to “Notting Hill” twice, once in the first five minutes. It is also a movie that thinks it is okay to copy one of the best sequences from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” because it makes a weak joke about doing so. There is even a reference to the wedding scene in “Shrek.” The whole movie is propelled by pieces from other movies, from Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Kindergarten Cop” to Richard Dreyfuss and Madeleine Stowe in “Stakeout,” director Peter Segal’s own “Get Smart” and star Dave Bautista’s “Stuber.” The best I can say is that it does not lift any of its storyline from lesser films along the same lines like “Mr. Nanny” or “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.”

So, no surprises here but that does not mean it’s not mildly entertaining along the way. Unfortunately, it is too violent for the elementary school audience most likely to enjoy it.

Bautista plays J.J., a special forces veteran now working as a field agent for the CIA. He is still better at shooting people than at spycraft. When he kills a bunch of bad guys instead of obtaining the information he was supposed to bring back to Langley his new assignment is designed to keep him out of trouble. He and Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), a tech specialist, will be on a stakeout, watching Kate, a single mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and Sophie, her 9 year old daughter (Chloe Coleman of “Big Little Lies”), from the apartment down the hall. They are new in town and Sophie is having trouble making new friends at school. The CIA thinks that Sophie’s uncle, who has the information they need about a possible nuclear weapon, may show up there.

But they are almost immediately busted by Sophie, who threatens to expose them unless J.J. helps her out, first by taking her to the skating rink, then by coming to school for “parents and special friends day.” He agrees, but he warns her that “This ain’t gonna end up like some movie with you and me sitting in little chairs having a tea party with dolls.” But what Sophie wants is to learn important spy stuff like lying and walking away from an explosion without looking back. And what J.J. needs is to learn how to develop actual relationships with anyone other than his fish, Blueberry and his affection for “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

Both the action scenes and the “J.J. learns how to be vulnerable and talk to people” scene are generic and there is a lot of carnage for a movie about an endearing child. But Coleman is a gifted performer who knows how to deliver lines that are too grown-up for her age without sounding overly precocious, and her scenes with Bautista have some real warmth. The understated diversity of the cast is a plus. Ultimately, the reason we see this kind of set-up so often is that we are programmed to enjoy it.

Parents should know that this movie has a lot of violence for a PG-13 with shoot-outs, chases, and explosions, and a child in peril. There is a reference to a sad off-screen death of a parent and the issue of learning upsetting news about what he may have done. A crotch hit is portrayed as comic. There are some school mean girls and brief cyber-bullying. Lying is portrayed as an enviable skill. Strong language includes the b-word, the s-word, and more.

Family discussion: What does J.J. learn from Sophie? Why doesn’t Sophie tell her mother about J.J.? What facial cues are you good at reading?

If you like this, try: “The Game Plan,” (PG) and the PG-13 rated “Kindergarten Cop” and “Spy”

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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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Dolittle

Posted on January 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard langage
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Attempted murder by poison, action/animal related peril, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 18, 2020
Copyright Universal 2019

Dolittle” is mildly entertaining, silly and more than a little strange. It is loosely based on the original books, which also inspired the musical with Rex Harrison, featuring a two-headed llama-like creature called a pushmi-pullyu and an Oscar-winning song, and the modern-day-set remakes with Eddie Murphy. But mostly it’s a “we can do anything with CGI now, so let’s make a movie about a man who can understand animal language.” And that’s where the entertaining part comes in. It’s also where the odd and silly parts come in. For example, Robert Downey, Jr., who produced and plays the title character, speaks in a husky, oddly accented (Welsh?) voice for no particular reason. A significant extended scene involves giving an enema to a gigantic animal.

This version, set once again in the Victorian era, begins with Dolittle a recluse in the animal sanctuary given to him by the young queen in appreciation for his special gifts. Devastated by the death of his wife, a fearless explorer lost at sea, Dolittle is a mess, almost more of an animal than the creatures living with him, until the arrival of two young people. A boy named Tommy (Harry Collett) who refuses to hunt with his father accidentally wounds a squirrel and brings it to Dr. Dolittle for treatment. And Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives with an urgent request. The queen is critically ill and wants to see him.

Dolittle operates on the squirrel but refuses Lady Rose’s request until he learns that if the queen dies he will lose his home, an unnecessarily sour and distracting detail. And so the animals shave his beard, trim his hair, make him bathe, and accompany him to the palace. There, after consulting a small squid in the queen’s aquarium, he learns that she has been poisoned by one of her courtiers (Jim Broadbent), with the help of the court physician, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen). The only antidote is on a legendary — and uncharted — island, the very same one Lily Dolittle was seeking.

Dolittle, Tommy, and the animals take off to find it. So does Müdfly, who is determined to stop them and to get the antidote for himself. They have various adventures along the way, including a stop at an island ruled by the semi-barbaric King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who immediately throws Dolittle in prison because they have a history.

The movie never finds the right balance between comedy, adventure, and heart, probably reflecting the reported extensive reshoots following disappointing early screenings. But it is still watchable due to the sumptuous and imaginative production design by Dominic Watkins and the stellar voice talent for the CGI animal characters, especially Emma Thompson as Poly the wise and sympathetic parrot. Also fine are the bickering polar bear (John Cena) and ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), who find a way to become friends. Frances de la Tour provides the suitably imperious voice for a dragon and Ralph Feinnes is a surprisingly vulnerable lion. But my favorite was Jason Mantzoukas as the dragonfly.

Too much of the animals’ dialog is just silly (“You answer the door because you’re the only one with arms.” “That’s coming from the guy (dog) who loves the smell of butts”). Hugh Lofting, who created the character knew that it would always be fun to have a story about a person who could talk to the animals. But the various versions of the story sometimes forget that it is important to give them something worth saying.

Parents should know that this film includes action/animal-related peril, attempted murder by poison, chases, crotch hits, a sad offscreen death, schoolyard language, and potty humor.

Family discussion: What did we learn about the characters when they talked about their parents? How did listening to the dragon make a difference? What should people do when they cannot stop feeling sad or being afraid of being hurt?

If you like this, try; “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the musical “Doctor Dolittle”

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Bad Boys for Life

Posted on January 15, 2020 at 2:01 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, guns, grenades, bazookas
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 16, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 20, 2020
Copyright Columbia 2019

There’s a lot that’s hard to believe in “Bad Boys for Life” (not that we’re expected to), but the one I want to bring to your attention is the repeated assertion that this is one last time. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are back as the lovably bickering, impetuously rule-breaking buddy cops from the original Bad Boys movie 25 years ago and the sequel eight years later, and it is clear that they are not done yet.

Smith and Lawrence have the same immensely likable screen chemistry they did in the first film, though it is clear that Smith has much more range as an actor. We hardly have time to notice, however, as in the first five minutes of the movie we get to see a Porsche racing through the streets of Miami, some quippy brio (“We’re not just black. We’re cops, too. We’ll pull ourselves over later”), some skimpy bathing suits, a new baby, a prison break featuring a shootout and a witch’s curse.

That baby is the first grandchild for Marcus (Lawrence), the devoted family man, who is so moved by his becoming Pop-Pop that he decides to retire from the police force. Mike (Smith), the player with an upscale apartment no cop could afford (see above re believability) is furious. When Mike is shot by an assassin who is going after everyone involved in a criminal conviction from the past, Marcus stays by his side, and promises God that if Mike lives he will never be violent again. Once Mike recovers, however (with Marcus listed in his phone as Quitter), Mike persuades him to come back — say it with me — for one last time.

That will involve AMMO, a new high-tech police operation with the kind of high-tech surveillance and firepower that you might find in the Pentagon, run by Rita (Paola Nuñez), an officer with whom Mike has history. Mike wants to find the mysterious black-clad person on a black motorcycle who shot him. This is a challenge because, as a character says, “Who doesn’t want to kill him?” The Pepto-Bismal-chugging captain (Joe Pantoliano, also returning from the earlier films) tries to stop him, but the thing about Bad Boys is that they don’t follow the rules. Whatcha gonna do? Soon Mike is trading insults with the upstarts at AMMO, including Vanessa Hudgens and “The Sun is Also a Star’s” Charles Melton.

I’d estimate it is about one-third banter (we get some insults about getting older now) and two-thirds action, much of it very intense and very, very violent, with lots of blood, explosions, and heavy artillery. “I know ‘thou shalt not kill’ but these were bad guys” describes their view of law enforcement plus “We ride together. We die together. Bad boys for life.” (Someone does point out that they should think of themselves as bad men. Which may be why there’s also more crying than you normally see in this kind of movie. It’s dumb, and the action/comedy mix is not entirely successful given the carelessness about collateral damage and the outright carnage. But the charm is there and it is watchable, a summer movie in January. By the end, if you stay for that post-credit scene, you might just be ready to see what they do next.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and extended action, peril, and violence with very graphic and disturbing images, chases, explosions, fire, very strong and crude language, sexual references, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: What made Mike and Marcus good partners? How have the movies changed since the first one? If you and your friend had a go-to motto, what would it be?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Bad Boys” movies and the “Fast and Furious” series

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted on December 18, 2019 at 6:23 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action-style peril and violence, sad death, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 19, 2019

Copyright 2019 20th Century Fox
Nine episodes in, not counting the countless auxiliary expansions and storylines, “Star Wars” is still a place I love to go. But nine episodes and more than four decades since the original film, now called “Episode IV: A New Hope,” the franchise faces some daunting challenges, including balancing the weight of precedent with the need for something new and the expectations, and in many cases encyclopedic knowledge of the fans. I liked this last in the original storyline, despite some problematic elements I will do my best not to spoil — and alert to any possible spoilers before I even get close, I promise. Here’s the non-spoiler headline: I predict that this episode will divide the fans into two camps. Those who liked the last two films, “The Last Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” will not like this one as much. Those who were disappointed by those will like this one better.

Now, go see the movie if you do not want to hear more, and come back afterwards to see what else I have to say so you can argue with me.

Once again, the heart of the story is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the former scavenger turned student of the force and Jedi trainee with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and her friends and colleagues, former Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) and hotshot, hothead pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Let’s take a moment to honor their superb performances, which have given so much to the series. In the midst of all of the action and hardware and locations and just-in-time rescues, all three of them have created vital, vibrant characters who give us a reason to care about all of the action. We also get to see the characters from Episode IV, including Carrie Fisher as Princess (now General) Leia, Hamill as Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, along with droids C-3PO and R2D2 and the Wookiee, Chewbacca. And the conflicted nemesis Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is back, along with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). There’s a brief surprise appearance that had people in the theater cheering, and a return to an iconic location.

So, much is familiar. At the end of “The Last Jedi” the rebel forces were almost entirely wiped out, with no response to their distress signals. And the bad guys who are ruthless fascists, want to take over that galaxy far, far, away. You might think there are only so many times someone can say “If this mission fails, it’s all been for nothing,” but I admit freely, for me, at least a couple more.

Remember how “New Hope” kicked off by sending a secret spy message to Obi-Wan Kenobi? Well, here we are again, with a message from a mole — perhaps we might call him/her a whistleblower — inside the bad guy organization. I do not want to give too much away by saying what they are calling themselves now or who is behind it. I will only say that the message shows they are planning some very bad stuff and the Death Star looks like a slingshot by comparison with what they have now.

So It is time to get Rey back from Luke’s remote island retreat, something between a spa and boot camp. One question is whether Kylo Ren will be on board. He is literally offered “everything” if he will just prove himself by killing Rey, and the glints of red reflecting in his eyes suggest that rage is still his primary motivation. His connection to Rey, including a sort of psychic Skype communication they have with each other across the galaxy, could make him waver. Or, it could make her waver. He offers her the same “everything” he is tempted by.

This is not about the set-up, though; it is about the adventure, and J.J. Abrams takes us from one planet to another, with chases, escapes, explosions, and new characters. I was disappointed that this movie did not pick up on some of the most intriguing elements of “The Last Jedi” and even more disappointed that it countermanded one I considered among the most significant, SPOILER ALERTS tilting some of the series’ most fundamental existential premises away from individual determination toward a less appealing notion of destiny pre-ordained. I did not care for some new Force powers, which also undermine the original trilogy’s premises, or for some of the developments of the last half hour. I did enjoy some new characters, including one from Poe’s past played by Keri Russell and a rebel alliance-friendly group who ride horse-like creatures and even use a bow and arrow, a nice break from all the laser beams and spaceships. There’s a kind of nutty detour to a sort of Ren Faire that was a hoot. One of my favorite characters continues to be the Millennium Falcon (pronounced both FALL-kin and FAAL-kin here!), and I loved every minute it was on screen. I got a kick out of the callbacks, including an “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Abrams was given thousands of threads to tie together, and if what he wove is uneven it is heartfelt and mostly a lot of fun to watch. That is all the force I need.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/action peril and violence with some graphic and disturbing images, sad deaths, and characters who are injured and killed.

Family discussion: How did what she learned change Rey’s ideas about herself? Why did Leia pick Poe?

If you like this, try: the other “Star Wars” films and the work of Joseph Campbell, who was one of George Lucas’ inspirations in creation the series

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