Shaft

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:25 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language including the n-word and many crude terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic crime-style peril and violence, characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019

Copyright New Line Cinema 2019
Cheerfully retro past the point of winking at us, through the point of smirking at us, up to the point of pushing back in favor of toxic masculinity, the new “Shaft” is an above-average summer chases, wisecracks, and shoot-out movie, thanks to its cast, its heritage, and of course the most memorable movie soundtrack theme of all time, a Grammy and Oscar winner.

Like two of the previous films in the series, this one is just called “Shaft.” The 1971 original starred Richard Roundtree, who also appeared in “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa.” Then Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a 2000 film just called “Shaft,” playing the nephew of the Roundtree character. (In this film, it turns out the original Shaft was not his uncle but his father.) This “Shaft” brings the story up to the present day, with Roundtree and Jackson returning to their roles and the third generation, J.J. (for John Junior), played by Jessie T. Usher (“Survivor’s Remorse”).

The first Shaft film, based on a tough with the bad guys/catnip for the ladies private investigator in the novels of Ernest Tidyman, was among the best of the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s.

The character in the book is white, but director Gordon Parks cast Roundtree, to “see a black guy winning,” and, toward the end of the Civil Rights movement era, that gave audiences a hero that had not been seen before, a strong, confident, supremely capable black man who operated by his own set of rules and applying his own form of justice. This had enormous appeal in an era where pretty much the only black actor in films was Sidney Poitier, who nearly always played characters who were near-saintly, designed to appeal to white audiences. Shaft did not care about appealing to or appeasing anyone. In the words of a black politician of the era named Shirley Chisolm, he was “unbought and unbossed.” He exemplified Hollywood cowboy-style notions of masculinity, supremely secure in his own power and control, and in the context of the movie that included his relationships with women, if using them as sexual objects could be characterized as a relationship.

Director John Singleton’s 2000 version with Jackson was an affectionate tribute to the original. Shaft is first seen as working for The Man as a police officer, but he quits in disgust and sets up an office as a private investigator. As this film begins, it is 1989 and Shaft (Jackson) is arguing with his significant other (Regina Hall) in a car when a gunfight breaks out. “This time it’s different,” she tells him, after it is all over and he’s the last man standing. In the back seat of the car is a baby. She knows that in order to keep their son safe, she will have to leave him.

The ensuing years are amusingly zipped through in a montage with pauses for the occasional and always-inappropriate gifts Shaft sends to JJ, wrapped in plain brown paper, including a box of condoms when he is 10 and a collection of porn when he is leaving for college at MIT. After graduation, JJ works as a data analyst at the FBI, where he is frustrated at not being assigned to take the lead on big cases like a possible terrorist cell at a local mosque. He lives in a tastefully furnished apartment with a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall and lacrosse sticks over his bed. He treats women with respect — with so much respect he has not been able to get out of the friend zone with Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), a doctor he has known since he was a child. He does not like guns, but he has mad skills as a hacker.

When another childhood friend, a Muslim veteran named Karim, is found dead from an overdose, JJ thinks it is murder, and he visits his father for the first time to ask for his help. A naked stripper covered with glitter answers the door, and Shaft appears with glitter in his beard. This is supposed to be funny and to convey how manly he is. Anyway, he agrees to help, and we’re suddenly in a buddy cop movie, with senior bashing junior every step of the way for not being many enough and junior giving it back about his not having been there as a dad. Much of that happens as they are being chased, shot at, or fought with, including the inevitable scene at a nightclub, with a dance/fight that puts the “tip” in “tipsy” and is actually pretty fun.

Someday people will look back on this movie as an exemplar of its moment. The exaggerated masculinity of 1971 may have been humorous and empowering, but in 2019 it seems creaky and skeezy, especially when JJ finally picks up a gun and the strong, capable female character suddenly melts into a puddle of adoration. It’s too soon to be a parody, too late to be ignored. The exaggerated bravado makes them seem fragile and over-compensating.

I admit, though, that Hayes theme still makes me melt into a puddle, and it is fun to see the three generations striding without regard to the oncoming cars in their shades and long coats. While it does not succeed in the same terms as the original or as an affectionate update, there are moments when it is an entertaining popcorn movie with appealing performances, when I can dig it.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of intense, graphic peril and violence including shoot-outs fights, and torture, with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use strong and crude language, including the n-word and the p-word, and there are vulgar sexual references, homophobic and transphobic jokes, and nudity, with a casually exploitive attitude toward women and a prove-it notion of masculinity. The movie also includes drinking and drunkenness and drugs and drug dealing.

Family discussion: Why wasn’t JJ a field agent? Why was his father so dismissive of his clothes and apartment? How do the Shaft movie’s attitude toward women and masculinity hold up today?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Shaft” movies and “Jackie Brown”

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Dark Phoenix

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 4:42 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book action peril and violence with some disturbing graphic images, guns, explosions, superhero fights, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
The Marvel Avengers movies showed surprising range for very different characters operating in a single universe, from the outright comedy of “Thor Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the “Captain America: Winter Soldier” hark back to the political paranoia films of the 1970’s, the grappling with historical divides and cultural identity in “Black Panther” and the existential issues of “The Hulk.” But this latest entry in the not (yet) integrated X-Men franchise, also based on Marvel comics, veers unwisely into a genre best left out of the superhero category: soap opera.

In this version of the X-Men universe (don’t try to tie it too closely to the original series or we would have to try to understand how Professor X and Magneto could age several decades in seven years, not to mention several other major disconnects), Jean Gray is brought by Professor X (James McAvoy) to his school, a sort of Hogwarts for mutants, when she is a child. Devastated by the loss of her parents in a car accident and terrified by powers she does not understand or control, she at first refuses. Professor X assures her that he can fix whatever she breaks, and that she herself is not broken. Note that just before the car flips over and crashes, which Jean survives without a scratch, the radio plays two significant songs: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Werewolves of London.” The first is a reference to the regenerating mythical bird that will give Jean her new nom de superhero/persona. The second is likely a nod to Jean’s relationship with Wolverine, otherwise not referred to in this film.

By the time Jean grows up (played by “Game of Thrones'” Sophie Turner), she is in a strong romantic relationship with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and very much a part of the group of young adult X-Men. (Raven/Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, points out that the women have been saving the men so often they should consider changing the name to X-Women). The team goes on their first mission to outer space, to rescue a crew of American astronauts. Jean is almost killed, but is exposed to and possibly saved by some mysterious cosmic radiation. She says she is fine and nothing shows up in a quick medical examination, but later that day she faints, and when she is tested again, her powers are literally off the charts. As in, so far past anyone else they need to build a new machine to measure.

Whatever she has learned from the trust, guidance, and support of Professor X dissolves as the new powers bring back the same feelings of guilt, shame, defiance, and being out of control that we saw in her just before her parents’ car flipped over. She will try to find answers from her past, including a visit to the secret place where Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and his team are hanging out, a hidden safe zone that is off the grid.

As in all X-Men movies (and in last week’s “Godzilla” except with monsters), the core tension is between those who want to find a way for humans and mutants to live together in peace and mutual support (astronaut rescue!) and those who want to wipe each other out. This war seems to be going on inside of Jean, as she discovers that her real and substitute fathers lied to her and as she fears she will not be able to control her new powers.

Meanwhile, some aliens have landed and taken over human bodies. Their leader (Jessica Chastain) is searching for Jean to help them take over the planet. It is a shame to see this versatile, classically trained actor relegated to one of those roles where all of her lines are recited in the same languid but threatening monotone and her superpowers is primarily striding around in stilettos without mussing her impeccably shaped blonde hair.

The action scenes are capably staged, but the non-action scenes are close to inert and some of the special effects look cheap and insubstantial. Can we just all agree never to ask an alien character to say that emotions make humans weak? This is a disappointing placeholder that suffers by comparison with the vastly more dynamic and imaginative superhero movies we’ve already seen this year.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy/comic-book peril and violence with characters injured and killed and some disturbing and graphic images including characters being impaled, shot, and dissolved, and some strong language including one f-word.

Family discussion: Why did Professor X lie to Jean? Did he “fix” her? Would you like to have Jean’s powers and what would you do if you had them?

If you like this, try: the “X-Men” movies and comics and “Captain Marvel”

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted on May 30, 2019 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/sci-fi action, peril, and violence, massive destruction
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2019

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
There are a lot of monsters in and around this movie. “Monster” in its most literal meaning refers to san imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening, basically, something that falls outside of what we consider “normal.” But we use the term “monster” to describe people whose behavior is extremely cruel, violent, or hateful. Note: the Latin root of the word can mean “warn.”

All of that is on display in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” an Avengers-style roundup of the classic kaiju (“strange beast”) monsters from post-WWII movies about enormous creatures who cause massive destruction as white-coated scientists make frantic calculations, the military deploys its most powerful weapons, skyscrapers are knocked down, politicians debate, and ordinary people run and scream. And so we have our title character, Godzilla, who has been a, well, monster hit at the box office, with the longest continuously running movie franchise, from 1954 to the present day, 35 films so far. Then there are the flying reptile Rodan, the gigantic insect-like Mothra, and the three-headed, dragon-like King Ghidorah.

And then there are the people. It would be a stretch to call them “characters” because they mostly exist to represent different sides in the movie’s key divide, metaphor for metaphor for arrange of geopolitical issues ranging from refugees and immigration to environmental destruction to the role of public and private entities in national security and that oldest of themes, hubris as reflected by the age of atomic weapons. These issues are literally brought home in the way that a formerly married couple, Emma (Vera Farmiga) and Mark (Kyle Chandler) Russell, and their daughter Madison (“Stranger Things'” Millie Bobbie Brown). They were so traumatized by the death of their son in the last monster attack that they split up. Mark is now off in the wilderness studying wolves. Emma is still studying kaiju and working on a special thingamagig that can be used to control the monsters and prevent further destruction.

Only Madison knows about how Emma plans to use it. And when the monsters who had been dormant re-appear Emma brings Madison along in what appears to be a very poorly timed take your daughter to work day. As Emma’s colleagues are mowed down by an “eco-terrorist” (Charles Dance) Emma and Madison are captured.

Meanwhile, there is a debate in the outside world about how to deal with monsters. Should we kill them all? Should we acknowledge that they are the next stage of evolution and live with them? As one character says, when asked if they could just be our skyscraper-sized pets, “No, we would be theirs.” And the question of who really are the monsters is raised with just enough heft to add some interest without ever getting in the way of the reason for the movie, which is big things fighting with other big things.

I know, I know, you want me to get to the good stuff. And you can relax; I just spent more time on exposition than the film does. Co-writer/director Michael Dougherty knows why we’re here and boy, does he deliver, with the help of outstanding special effects and design crew. It is possible, I suppose, that you may have a chance to catch your breath at some point, in which case you might consider what the people behind that first Godzilla movie 65 years ago, with production values that might have seemed a bit crude even then, might think if they saw these never-less-than-spectacular kaiju, never less than majestic, every battle powerfully staged.

Even if they had worked on the characters and dialogue with as much imagination as they did with the creatures, it would just be a distraction. The international cast gives it what they can, but the only use for lines like “It’s an existential challenge to our world!” and “The earth unleashed a fever to fight the infection,” “You are messing with forces beyond your comprehension!” plus references to “playing God” and saving the world is to stay out of the way of the action. Happy summer — the popcorn pleasures have arrived.

Parents should know that this is a monster movie with extended sci-fi/fantasy peril, action, violence, mayhem, and destruction. Characters use strong language and there are issues of betrayal and family tensions.

Family discussion: What is the significance of the comment about the difference between the way Eastern and Western cultures see the stories about dragons? How would humans find a way to co-exist with monsters? Which humans behave like monsters?

If you like this, try: the kaiju movies, “Rampage,” and “Pacific Rim” and its sequel

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Action/Adventure Fantasy IMAX movie review Movies Movies Remake Series/Sequel

Aladdin

Posted on May 23, 2019 at 5:17 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action/peril
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy/action peril and violence, attempted murder, near-drowning, discussion of sad deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Issue of female autonomy and power
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
It is a bit of a puzzle that a director known for dynamic action doing a live action remake of a musical animated film that was exceptionally lively has somehow produced a movie that seems bogged down, even static. The new “Aladdin” from co-writer/director Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Sherlock Holmes”) is colorful and tuneful, but for much of its just over two hours running time it lumbers along, despite its best efforts to entertain.

The original Disney animated version of “Aladdin” is one of the studio’s all-time best thanks to a wonderfully melodic score, with songs by Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman and possibly the all-time greatest animated movie voice performance in history, Robin Williams as the Genie. The mercurial Williams found his ultimate mode of presentation with the help of Disney’s top animators as the magical, infinitely malleable, cartoon character, instantly creating characters ranging from Ed Sullivan, William F. Buckley, and Jack Nicholson to Peter Lorre and a bunch of zombies, always retaining the essential heart and humor that made a fantasy come alive. (The closest Williams ever came to replicating avalanche of portrayals might be his innumerable improvisations with a shawl on “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”) No live action version, even with the help of the latest CGI technology and the powerhouse charisma of Will Smith, can match the kaleidoscopic imagination of the 1992 Genie.

This version does make some substantial improvements in the story of the “street rat” who loves a princess and then, with the help of the genie in a magical lamp, pretends to be a prince so he can court her. Disney says it has the most diverse cast in the studio’s history, and it is great to see all of the lead roles performed by people whose ethnicity matches their characters, with Egyptian-born Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott, of British and Indian heritage, as Jasmine. The locations are authentic as well. Filmed in Jordan, and with the always-outstanding work of the Disney production designers, the settings are splendid, and the classic songs still sound fresh and hummable, especially “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World.” The film should really be called “Aladdin and Jasmine” because it gives the princess a full, meaningful role in the story, respecting her agency, ability, and dedication to her people. It gives her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) more agency, as well, unlike the animated character, who spends much of the story in an enchanted fog. And it’s nice to see Genie get a bit more of a story, too, thanks to the handmaiden to the princess, played by “SNL’s” Nasim Pedrad.

But the story-telling itself is foggy in this version. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the story’s villain, does not have the menace of the original. He seems young and angry, more petulant than ominous. There is a hint of an intriguing backstory for him that gets lost in the busy, “look at me”-ness of the film. A storyline about whether the Sultan should approve invasion of another country does not work well and a dance number with the Genie controlling Aladdin has too many cuts to deliver on the humor of the situation. The “Step Up” movies do these moments much better, and Jasmine’s new song from “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is outshone by the originals. A wink at the map of Disneyland as Jasmine does the ancient equivalent of Googling “Prince Ali” is out of place.

If there had been no animated version, this one would have served as an entertaining family movie. But as has happened too often with Disney’s live action remakes of its best animated films, it is just an unnecessary reminder of how much we loved the original.

Parents should know that this film includes fantasy peril and violence including near-drowning, attempted murder and references to killing and to sad death of parents, action, brief alcohol, and a kiss.

Family discussion: What would your three wishes be? Remember to be careful with your words! Why was Aladdin so awkward when he becomes Ali? Why was Jafar so angry? What does it mean to be a diamond in the rough, and what made Aladdin one?

If you like this, try: the original Disney animated version and the stories of the 1001 Nights

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted on May 19, 2019 at 1:34 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action/cartoon style peril and violence involving people and dragons
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 20, 2019

Copyright Universal 2019

My full review for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is posted at rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

The final chapter of the “How to Train Your Dragon” saga is visually stunning and emotionally satisfying, with a conclusion that may leave the parents in the audience a little tearful….Sometimes the banter in the film can be too silly, and the reintroduction of the characters can be a bit awkward, especially when one of the teenagers tries to flirt with Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). The script is also weakened by dumb insults between the twin characters, and an over-used storyline about whether a couple is ready to get married. But the opening scene of liberating caged dragons is excitingly staged and the film gets better quickly when it becomes more comfortable with its deeper themes. The characters have to rethink some of their ideas about tradition, change, what makes a home, and loss as “part of the deal that comes with love.”

The film’s breathtaking images provide a fitting accompaniment to the characters’ emotional struggles. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins served as a consultant on all three movies and I’m guessing he played a part in developing the exquisite quality of natural light, particularly in the flying scenes and a stunning phosphorescent-lit encounter. The visuals keep us inside a rich world of fantasy—the variations in dragon species continue to dazzle—one that is always grounded in human fears and feelings that are very real and very moving.

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