The Marksman

Posted on January 13, 2021 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, violence, and some bloody images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scene in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, brutal murders, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 15, 2021

Copyright 2021 Voltage Pictures
I can’t help saying that “The Marksman,” the 2021 entry in the annual Liam Neeson action film we usually get to start the year, is no bullseye. Neeson is always watchable and the Mark Patten cinematography makes the most of the southwestern landscape. The shoot-outs are well-staged. But the screenplay by
Chris Charles, Danny Kravitz, and director Robert Lorenz is underwritten and predictable.

This is less the “Taken” or “Cold Pursuit”-style action thriller where we get to enjoy Neeson showing off his special skills than it is a Clint Eastwood-style cranky old guy movie, perhaps because Lorenz is Eastwood’s longtime producer. There’s even a pause where the two main characters watch “Hang ’em High,” a 1968 Eastwood film that was the first from Eastwood’s own production company. In “The Marksman,” Neeson plays an Eastwood-like character who rails against his fate: “I’m trying to understand how you can work your whole life, serve your country, pay your taxes” and end up with nothing.”

Neeson plays Jim a Marine vet turned rancher on the Arizona border. He sometimes finds Mexicans who have been injured illegally crossed the border, and he always calls the immigration authorities, where his stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick) is an official.

Wiped out by medical expenses, he is notified by a banker that his ranch is about to be auctioned in 90 days, but can be sold sooner if they get a good offer. The loan officer Jim knew — and who knew Jim — is no longer there at the bank. The fact that Jim’s late wife’s ashes are spread on the hill and that he is “no deadbeat,” does not mean he gets extra time. “You have yourself a good evening,” the banker says as he gets into his car.

Jim finds a Mexican mother and son who have sneaked through a hole in the border fence. He calls the authorities, but then cartel thugs led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) come after them and start shooting. Jim shoots back. “Sorry, Pancho, these illegals are mine.”

The boy’s uncle stole some money from the cartel. They killed him and now they want to send a message by killing his family. The boy’s mother is shot. As she is dying, she gives the boy a rosary and hands Jim a blood-soaked scrap of paper with an address in Chicago, where the boy’s relatives are. She asks Jim to promise to bring her son to them.

And so, Jim and Miguel (Jacob Perez) get on the road. Jim does not have a phone or GPS, so he buys a map, which an amused sales clerk lets him have at no charge. But the very high tech cartel thugs are able to trace him through his credit card. And so it is a cat-and-mouse road trip with the interactions, escapes, and confrontations you would expect. Which is the problem. This movie is so bereft of ideas that it telegraphs everything that is coming (I mean, the title makes sure we know what Neeson’s special skills are this time) and repeating too much of it.

I respect Neeson’s special skills. I just hope next time they include picking a better script.

Parents should know that this film is about a former Marine who tries to protect a young boy after his mother and uncle are murdered by members of a Mexican drug cartel. The film includes shoot-outs and fighting, with many injuries and deaths, including a parent and a dog, all witnessed by the boy. There is also some strong language and some drinking.

Family discussion: Why does Jim help Miguel? Why does he change his mind about helping Miguel? Why does he end things with Mauricio the way he does? Do you agree?

If you like this, try: “Let Him Go” with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane and “Taken” with Neeson

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Wonder Woman 1984

Posted on December 21, 2020 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and sequences of action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2020

Copyright 2020 Warner Brothers
You may wonder why Wonder Woman is not as wonder-ful this time around. Part of that is attributable to shrinking it from big-screen theatrical release to home screens. We feel that right away in the bravura opening sequence, a flashback with Diana Prince as a young girl competing with adult Amazonian women in an athletic event like the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course if it was also a triathlon. But the bigger problem is in the fundamentals, the storyline and characters.

The first Wonder Woman was exceptionally well-conceived and executed, a triumph for director Patty Jenkins after some lackluster films from DC Comics. The WWI setting added interest, especially seeing Diana’s response to learning about the world outside of her idyllic woman-only community of Amazonian warriors. The stakes were clear and compelling and the villain was genuinely scary.

This sequel, set in 1984 for no particularly compelling reason, has entertaining moments and fun action sequences but the stakes are not as visceral and the villains are not as interesting.

As a resident of the Washington DC area, I got a special kick out of the re-creation of the 1980’s look of Georgetown and some of the other locations and tried not to pay too much attention to the details they got wrong. I can promise you, no one who works at the Smithsonian would think of touching any of their artifacts without gloves and other protective equipment, much less letting anyone, even a major contributor who knows how to flirt, take one home. But that is what happens when an item with crystals ends up at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where Diana (Gal Gadot) is now working as an expert.

Now, I’m not asking for realism in a genre that includes radioactive spider bites and infinity stones, but ideally the McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is the story is about — the formula, the gold, the nuclear codes, whatever) has to be simple enough not to interfere with the plot but specific enough to make the threat interesting, and that means we have to understand a little bit about how it works, why it is important, and what it takes to defeat it. It’s more fairy tale than comic book, a wishing stone crystal thingy more like “be careful what you wish for” stories like The Monkey’s Paw (which gets a shout-out in the film) or King Midas’ power to turn all he touched to gold.

That’s not a very good McGuffin and the villains are disappointing, too. There is a guy who has informercials about how to be rich on television, Maxwell Lord played by guy-behind-the-Mandelorian-helmet Pedro Pascal, who wants, well, pretty much everything. Making him in the oil business is a nice 80’s touch. And there’s the mousy museum curator Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig), who wants to be just like Diana. The muddled elements of their storylines are reflected in an absurd flashback that is supposed to make us, what, feel sorry for him? Understand his “Cat’s in the Cradle” problem? And the Capra-esque conclusion is not the “we are the world” moment they hope for.

Then there’s Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. As you may remember, he died heroically in the first movie. So there’s a real “Bobby Ewing in the shower” moment (another 80’s reference?) to bring him back. I’m all for putting Chris Pine in every movie ever, but again, the way this happens is not thought all the way through and it is impossible not to feel uneasy about the way the characters overlook the real-world consequences of his return for so much of the storyline. I did get a kick out of having the guy do the trying on clothes montage, though, for once. And the post-credit appearance from a most-welcome addition to the cast.

Gadot is an enormously appealing screen presence but this storyline is not a good fit with her abilities as an actress or a movie star. This is a sadder, wiser Diana, more than 60 years after the first film, but at times she just seems emptier.

Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve seen a comic book movie, but I found it entertaining despite all of the narrative shortcomings. Just hoping the next chapter is more wonder-ful.

Parents should know that this movie has extended comic book/action-style peril and violence and a sad death.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Max spend more time with his son? Did Diana envy Barbara?

If you like this, try: “Wonder Woman” and the DC Comics. Adult fans will enjoy Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, about the remarkable story of the man who created the character.

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Mulan (Live Action 2020)

Posted on September 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended battle sequences, fights, swords, explosions, falling
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020
Copyright Disney 2020

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is closer to director Niki Caro’s touching, both mythic and intimate “Whale Rider” than it is to the animated musical with Eddie Murphy as a quippy little dragon and Donny Osmond as a Chinese warrior.

Coming to us on DisneyPLus (for an extra $30) due to the pandemic, it gives us just a fraction — literally — of the grand vistas and meticulous framing Caro uses so beautifully in the film. This version of the classic story of a young woman who pretends to be male to join the military and saves the day with a brilliant strategic maneuver is more sober, ambitious, and grand in scope than the first version. Note that some of the characters and names are changed to further remove it from the original. And it is the first of the Disney live-action remakes of animated classics to get a PG-13 rating.

The movie recalls “Frozen” at the beginning, with two sisters, one with some special, almost magical skills. The young Mulan (Crystal Rao) shows determination and remarkable agility and skill as she chases down a runaway chicken with parkour-style acrobatics. Her father (Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou), is proud of the “qi” (life force) in her. But her mother knows that in their world the responsibility of the women is to attract a propitious husband. That does not require strong q. It is about modesty, decorum, and silence, almost the ability to disappear except when needed. Even Mulan’s father tells her that it is time to hide her qi so she can bring honor to the family.

Invaders come to China, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), with the help of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li). Every family has to supply a warrior for the military. To protect her father, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a young man and joins up with the soldiers who are in training. She quickly volunteers to cover night watch to avoid the group showers. And she begins to prove herself with skill and determination.

Then comes the battle, the revelation of her true identity, and then another chance to save the day when she realizes that Bori plans to attack the emperor (Jet Li).

Director of Photography Mandy Walker shows us breathtaking vistas (New Zealand standing in for China in much of the film) and stunningly staged battles. The scenes in Mulan’s village are colorful but gritty enough to be authentically rural. And the production design is everything we expect from Disney, meticulously researched and gorgeously imagined.

The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential qi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. They are on opposite sides, but they recognize all they have in common. As in the original film, we see the literal constrictions and distortions in the clothing and makeup Mulan must put on to meet with the matchmaker. She is far more comfortable in the armor of a warrior.

Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her qi.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with battle scenes, swords, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is chi and how do you access it? Why did the matchmaker and the warriors have such limited ideas about women?

If you like this, try; the original “Mulan” and live-action remakes “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” along with Chinese films for older audiences like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

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The Old Guard

Posted on July 9, 2020 at 5:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sequences of graphic violence, and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alchol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense, and graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
The thing no one ever seems to think of about invulnerability with everlasting life is that is is exhausting. You think it is an existential crisis to face the certainty of death? Try imagining the existential crisis of knowing that you won’t die, that you will outlive everyone you have ever loved and they will resent and even hate you for it. Meanwhile, just like the rest of us mortals, you might as well find a way to make your everlasting life meaningful by helping people in need. And that is where being impossible to injure or kill comes in very handy.

Early in “The Old Guard,” based on the graphic novel series by Greg Rucka, there is an ambush and our heroes are all riddled with bullets. They seem dead. But then they begin to stir. And then they wipe out the attackers. Meanwhile, a young Marine named Niles (“If Beale Street Could Talk’s” Kiki Layne) is on screen long enough to show us her courage, competence, compassion, and dedication before a terrorist slices her throat. She should have died. Her fellow Marines, once close friends, are a little freaked out that she did not die. And then she is kidnapped by Andy (Charlize Theron), leader of what we will learn is the Old Guard. They know when another immortal comes into being, and they come and get them.

This makes the film into an origin story, at least from Niles’ perspective, and it gives us a chance to meet the members of the Old Guard through her. Andy is the oldest. She won’t say how old, but her real name is Andromache of Scythia and her weapon of choice has not just nothing mechanical but no moving parts at all. Book (Matthias Schoenaerts) fought Napoleon in 1812. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Yusuf (Marwan Kenzari) fought in the Crusades. On opposite sides. “We killed each other many times,” one of them explains cheerily. And now there is Niles, who at first does not believe, or does not accept that she believes. She wants to know whether the group are the good guys or the bad guys. “Depends on the century,” she is told. But they do try to do right.

And they try to stay out of sight. That’s harder to do these days, as it is almost impossible not to be glimpsed in someone’s selfie on social media. Andy is ready for it. She offers to take a picture with the selfie-taker’s phone and quickly deletes any images she appears in before telling the group to say “Cheese.” She is ready, but she is tired.

They’ve been picking their sides, but now they have to defend themselves. No one can really hide in the digital era, and a pharma bro is eager to get into their DNA and extract whatever makes them special so he can cure a lot of people and make a lot lot lot lot of money.

Gina Prince-Bythewood may be the most deeply, unabashedly romantic director working today. Her films “Love and Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights” are in a different category from the usual Hollywood idea of love, with a quick montage of the highly photogenic couple walking through a farmer’s market and riding bicycles along the beach. Her films are about profound connection and commitment. There is a moment in this film that will be in clip reels of the most true-hearted movie depictions of love forever. It brought tears to my eyes and a flip-flop to my heart and it was in the middle of a graphic novel shoot-em-up movie about characters with superpowers. But those are the kinds of layers Prince-Bythewood brings to this story, grounded in fine performances by all involved, especially Theron, Layne, and Schoenaerts, and in those existential questions, here answered in part (come on, no one has more that a part of the answer) in a manner that is romantic and satisfying and leaves us curious about the next chapter.

Parents should know that this movie has strong language and extreme and very graphic peril and violence with disturbing images and very strong language.

Family discussion: What is the best part of immortality? What is the worst? Is it right to sacrifice the few to benefit the many?

If you like this, try: the graphic novels and movies like “Fast Color” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”

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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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